Despite the fact that I suffer from a motorway phobia (not such an uncommon thing as you might imagine), I found myself saying to the family, “You know, maybe motorways aren’t so bad after all”. It was Sunday lunchtime, late July, just outside Calais. The autoroute was almost picturesque, its central reservation crammed with attractive flowering shrubs, and there was not a single car, lorry, caravan or “mobil-‘ome” in sight. I was cured!
Twenty-four hours later, we were all reaching for the Valium again. South of Dijon, the lorries were back, the Dutch were back, the Brits and the Germans were back and the péage was once again the Highway To Hell. In fact, it was Hell.
Now we remembered why we’d sworn never to drive the length of France again. What was worse, we’d just worked out that, by the time you added up all the petrol and the frequent and astronomical péage tolls, it would have been almost as cheap to put the car on the train and travel without terror.
People love national stereotyping when it comes to drivers, but it doesn’t matter where they come from, as soon as they hit the French péage, they all go completely crazy. It’s almost as if they’re saying, look, we’ve paid for this, so we’ll do what we like.
“What we like” consists of switching lanes without indicating, weaving in and out of traffic like a snake, exceeding the speed limit as a matter of honour, flashing, hooting and gesticulating and, above all, seeing how close you can get to the car in front while travelling at 100 miles an hour.
The autoroute has magnificent signing. One of the most useful notices is a frequent and gigantic hoarding pointing out in pictorial fashion that you need to keep at least two of the white lines they have helpfully painted at the side of the road between you and the next car. If not, it says, you’re dead if it chooses to brake suddenly.
Fine. Except that not a single person takes the tiniest notice of it. The authorities might as well have saved themselves the millions of francs the warnings undoubtedly cost. Yes, so it’s just human beings exercising their right to take risks, like they do by smoking, mountaineering and walking to the North Pole. The only trouble is, they’re taking risks with me and my family as well as their own.
So it wasn’t surprising that every few kilometres, there was a pile-up. We saw a Dutch caravan which had ended up vertical rather than horizontal, numerous shunts and one scene where people were actually being laid out by the side of the road. The thing to look out for is a sudden blaze of brake lights and hazard warning lights immediately in front of you. This is a signal for you to slam on the brakes and do likewise, hoping that the person behind is reasonably alert.
The péage has huge and very impressive gantries which provide you with useful information such as “belt up in the back” (observed as much as the “keep your distance” signs are) or advance notice that the next “aire” will provide live entertainment for children. The one to watch out for, however, is “Bouchon”. This, conveniently, is a direct translation of the English word “Bottleneck”, and what it means is, keep going at the same outrageous speed, but be ready to leap on your brakes and switch on your flashers at any moment.
On the way home, something really peculiar happened. One of the many ignored signs is one advising drivers to “take a break”. This is something you can actually do in France (as opposed to in the UK) because every few kilometres there are very nice little “aires”, or resting places. Being obedient, we decided to do just that, and the three attractive females in the family promptly lay down on a blanket and fell asleep. I, the unattractive male member of the family, went to the loo and was startled, on my return, to find that a battered old Renault had parked next to them. In it were two young Marti Pellow clones (dark pony-tailed, handsome, unshaven), who were observing the girls closely.
Having just read a newspaper article about motorway bandits, I momentarily and mistakenly sensed trouble, until it became clear that they had merely broken down. The Renault wouldn’t start, so I offered them a push. It did the trick, the engine sputtered into life and they set off down the slip road. But then, inexplicably, they started to reverse, and came all the way back to us.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“We want to say thank you,” replied Marti One.
“Oh, that’s okay.”
Marti Two cupped his hand to his mouth and inhaled, imitating taking a drag on a joint.
“Would you like to ‘fume’ something?”
Ala! So it wasn’t only hairstyles they had in common with Marti Pellow.
I declined the offer.
“Une bière, peut-être?”
“No thanks, we’re driving.”
So, with friendly waves and cries of “Bonne route”, we parted company and they drove off.
“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” wondered the girls.
We would. At the next péage toll barrier, the Two Martis had been pulled over and their car was being disembowelled by several gendarmes. I felt awful, simultaneously guilty and not guilty. After all, if I hadn’t done them the good turn of giving them a push, they wouldn’t have been busted.
There must be a moral here. It’s just that I can’t work out what it is.
From the Western Daily Press