What I Did On My Summer Vacation – 2008

French Flag

As potentially some of you might have noticed, I dropped off the scene and was replaced by a robot – had to get away, had a summer vacation to go on.

Where?

France – yeah, I know, odd choice, but there were a bunch of conspiring factors.

Why write about it here?

Filler – besides, there\’s freaky car-related shit that happens in France.

Have you ever looked at the suspension of a Citroen DS?

Seriously, have you?

Anyway, I decided to write, as an adjunct, what I saw from a car guy\’s perspective over there.

Come with me this way, to a land where most NASCAR fans would fear to tread: France.

There\’s this rep that France has, or actually has had, for about the last 60 years, and some of it is true.

The girls are cute, the women are gorgeous and the men look like they\’re a nanosecond away from either laughing or taking a sharpened knife to you or both.

It\’s a society that seemingly exists on bread, cheese, ham, cologne ads, cigarettes, newspapers, and indignation delivered by \”trucks\” that look like something from Theodor Geisel\’s last hit of blotter.

Paris is a city more than a thousand years old and is seven stories high.

It\’s webbed with a network of \”roads\” that would make a German traffic safety engineer faint dead away and a London cabby ask for a map.

The roads come in two kinds:

Broad boulevards (in the strictest and most accurate meaning of that term) where you could fit 4 cars side-by-side in each direction, bordered by trees that have been there since they were used to hang some of the nobility in 1438; smooth, lined with raised cobblestone, a good sportscar could blast down these at incredible speeds – and they would, oh they surely would, because the French are stone speed freaks – but for the fact that for every long, broad, tree- and pretty girl-lined boulevard, there comes the second type of Parisian road.

This is a thing that is little wider than an alleyway, called something like the Rue de la Tombeau, and there are eleven Frenchmen hell-bent on getting there first, and you\’ve got to go from something like flat out to on the brakes, and keep in mind that not all of the people vying for that piece of tarmac are in \”cars\”, oh no, it\’s you versus (on average) two guys on BICYCLES, five guys on scooters (and these aren\’t all little Vespas either), a BMW motorbike, at least three guys in hatchbacks, and a delivery truck loaded with either:
1. rocks,
2. sand,
3. bread,
4. Eau de Sauvage cologne posters or
5. gendarmerie riot cops.

Guess which one usually wins?

That\’s right, velocity & tonnage.

Or one of the cyclists –

The things I saw people pull on the streets of Paris would give Nader an infarction.

There are all the things any \”normal\” American driver would expect to see on the road in their home town. There\’re stripes and lanes and lights and crosswalks and OHMYGODLOOKOUTFORTHATDELIVERYGUY!!!

Your average American put down in this situation would crash within a block and a half.

Don\’t talk on your cell phone.

Don\’t argue with the kids in the back seat.

You better drive – you better pay Attention … if you don\’t pay Attention, there will be Hell to pay.

ScreamingYellingHonkingGesticulatingHonkingWaving

Stuff that would get you thrown into an \”anger management program\” in the States is not only commonplace behavior (when things go wrong in traffic), it\’s just the First Stage of what happens when things go wrong in traffic.

If you don\’t heed the warnings of your fellow street users, (and remember, this includes everyone on the street at any one given time, not just cars, but people like little old ladies and even worse, tourists) their dire predictions will be followed by The Thump of you hitting something big and solid.

And it gets even worse.

You would tie up traffic.

And woe be unto you for doing something like that.

You know the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan?

It\’s like that, only with amazingly cheap and delicious breakfasts.

I once read of Phil Hill (America\’s 1st World Driving Champion and multiple Le Mans 24 hour winner) using the term, back in 1964, of \”worthless little French heap\”.

I knew just what he meant then, and I knew just what he meant when I was standing on a street corner in Paris about 4 days ago.

The French made frighteningly tiny little cars that look like they were made from downspouts and rain gutters back in 1964, and two out of three of their cars still look like they do today.

At first glance, they look like death traps, little better than what Louis Blériot would fly around in. On second glance, you nod to yourself and say, \”Jesus! These things are little better than what Louis Blériot would fly around in!\”

Then you notice the neat use of crush space and the little signs on the dash and the seats and the A-pillar and the headliner saying AIRBAG.

It (the Bacchanalian use of airbags) must be the only thing that keeps these people from dying like the populace of, well, Paris during the plague years.

I\’ve seen less risk-taking at the local go-kart track.

I\’ve seen sturdier engineering in a kids\’ couch-fort.

Yet these fools fly into alleyway-sized streets like Sebastian Loeb flying into a tunnel on The Col de Turini – hey, wait a minute – kind of explains Loeb, doesn\’t it?

Anyway – yet these fools fly into alleyway-sized streets like Sebastian Loeb flying into a tunnel on The Col de Turini, seemingly blind to what\’s on the wrong side of that \”you\’ve got a 99% chance of – \” statement that would be running through my head, and come out the other side unscathed and unruffled.

Slam on the brakes.

Squeeze it into a parking space the size of a shopping cart.

Get out.

\”Bonjour!\” to their girlfriend/boyfriend/co-worker/friend who is an artist/writer/painter/philosopher and always impeccably dressed.

Walk over to where they are sitting at the outdoor café waiting for them.

Get a café (did you know they have Starbucks in Paris? What the Hell\’s the point of that?) from the amazingly efficient yet infuriating waiter and sit down and talk about what ever it was that was so damn important that they had to drive like a certifiable maniac, struggling to \”beat\” two guys on BICYCLES, five guys on scooters, a BMW motorbike, at least three guys in hatchbacks, and a delivery truck loaded with either:
1. rocks,
2. sand,
3. bread,
4. Eau de Sauvage cologne posters or
5. gendarmerie riot cops.

into a corner.

You\’d think this would be it, the whole nut so to speak, but this is just what occurred to me on the 5 kilometer taxi ride from the TGV station to the hotel.

So I got a lot more to say.

You just wait until I get into things like: A town with 50,000 people, two traffic lights and seemingly 45 roundabouts, The power and the glory that is the TGV – especially when it utterly fails, Scooters In Paris, Your Average French Car, The Smart Car In The Wild, MiniVans of France, On The Road to Royan, and The day I saw a Corvair Greenbriar van in Royan, by the beach with the German gun emplacements.

About The Author

Tony Borroz grew up in a sportscar oriented family, but sadly, it was British cars. His knuckles still show the marks of slipped Whitworth sockets, strains to reach rear upper shock bushings on Triumphs and slight burn marks from dealing with Lucas Electric "systems". He has written for a variety of car magazines and websites, Automoblog chief among them, as well as working on very popular driving games as a content expert. He has also worked for aerospace companies, software giants and as a movie stuntman. He currently lives in a secure, undisclosed location in the American southwestern desert.

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