A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Driving in France Part 1

29 April 2011 


I recall fondly the very first time that I visited France.  I was honored to direct a conference in the French Alps and, as my wife and I would also be spending some time in Switzerland, we rented a car there and eventually found our way to L'hexagone.  After crossing the border into France, it was no more than 30 minutes before I had the opportunity to witness at close proximity the French concept of aller en voiture — driving.

Due to some unexpected delays (or perhaps they should be expected — that’s what traveling is all about), we found ourselves arriving at the border after midnight.  There were very few cars at that hour on the winding road through the mountains.  Then suddenly a small, yellow sports car approached rapidly from behind and seemed intent on fusing to our rear bumper, lights flashing and horn honking.

It was a very narrow road, full of tight bends, but eventually I was able to find room to let him pass.  It was not ten minutes later that we rounded a curve and there, in a cloud of dust and smoke illuminated by flashing lights, was the yellow sports car in a surreal heap on the hillside.  Some other cars had already stopped and were helping the occupants, who seemed dazed but not hurt.

We’ve all heard the clichés about French drivers.  (You know: they say that there is only one joke about French drivers.  The rest of the stories are all true.)  But the statistics seem to confirm these impressions.  A 2010 study by the French insurance company AXA showed that not only did one in two French drivers exceed speed limits, but the study ranked the French among the worst drivers in all of Europe.

What is it about les gaulois that causes them to presser les chevaux — to “press the horses,” i.e., to accelerate — or to appuyer sur le champignon — to “lean on the mushroom,” another word for gas pedal?  (Another question might be, how is it that car and food terminology is interchangeable in French? — but we probably don't want to think about that.)

There seems to be no regard for la limite de vitesse (speed limit), or fear of la contravention (a ticket) from le flic or, more formally, l’agent de police.  The French driver simply has one thought: aller plus vite — to go faster.



It is mystifying that a body can spend more than three hours faire un repas (having a meal), but cannot bear to lose a nanosecond on the autoroute.  How can this behavior be explained?  Due to the unique genetic makeup of the French, while they are ‘Franks’ in everyday activities such as dining, undertaking simple tasks, or engaging in conversation, place them in a ‘chariot’ and they become ‘Latin’.  Then they have one purpose, and that is rouler (to drive) and gagner (to win).

Jacques Tati captured this innate French quality in his 1971 film Trafic.  In one scene there is a beautifully choreographed multi-car accident (not to worry — no one gets hurt).  A speeding little yellow roadster (sound familiar?) buzzes a traffic cop at an intersection, and as the cop spins around, traffic fecklessly approaches from all four directions in the absence of any cues.  A truck collides with a red VW Beetle, whose trunk lid pops open, initiating a superbly crafted chain reaction.  A white Citroën DS glides by on its two front tires, colliding with a blue car that spins in place, bumping a light-tan car that backs up and hits a Citroën 2CV, as the red Volkswagen’s trunk lid chomps like a dog after a runaway tire.

While Tati’s traffic cop was trying to do an exemplary job, comic confusion nonetheless resulted.  Actually, one doesn’t even need a traffic cop in France for humorous effect — the same result can be easily attained from the signage.

While staying in Annecy for the conference I had mentioned earlier, each day I would drive part way around the lake to reach the conference center.  Almost without fail, on my return to the city in the evening I would end up some place where I did not plan to be.  It became a standing joke.

This confusion was due to the fact that French signs, while extremely logical and commendably earnest, simply do not serve any purpose for the conducteur of a modern vehicle.  Perhaps these signs once helped wayfarers who, with loads on their backs, were undertaking a pilgrimage in ancient times — but not a twenty-first-century stranger to the city enmeshed in the frantic disarray that is French traffic.

You see, the signs on the street tell you not where you are, but where you might end up if you hypothetically continued in that direction — a city, a village, or a topographical feature that could be 5 or 500 kilometers distant.  In fact, I suspect that some locations may not exist or may never have existed, but are woven into the fabric of tradition, a part of a collective dream, and listed on signs as purely platonic coordinates.

Knowing in which direction Onnex or Villaz lay did not tell me where I was at that moment in Annecy.  The signs that would have provided actual street names — picture yourself in a tiny foreign car careering in the midst of traffic mayhem — if available at all, are located up above the trees in faded, mere centimeters-high print on the corners of random buildings.

Now, even this problem might be solvable if one suspects that an intersection may be the one required for a turn: one simply drives around the block and hopes that the light changes to red in order to stick one’s head out the window and gander at the conjectural sign.  You might think that it would be even easier simply to pull over and park in order to search for a building with a potential sign, except for the fact that parking spaces in France follow the Heisenberg uncertainty principle — once one attempts to observe them, they go somewhere else in the universe.

Nevertheless, the French apparently thought that all of this was still too easy and, to make the experience a little more sportif,  they threw in rond-points (traffic circles) for the element of surprise.  Now, along with signs to useless points outside of a city and/or the potentially useful signs that indicate one’s present location but are invisible, scrambled directionality enters the equation.

Thus, on my return each evening to Annecy, I was required to negotiate not one, not two, but three successive rond-points in a whirling vortex of traffic in the dark of night, any traffic circle potentially sending me hurtling off in some unknown direction, even if Pringy or Epagny was not where I wanted to end up.



Although I have no aspirations of becoming a Formula 1 driver, I was determined to conquer those three rond-points.  I had gotten lost every other time, but in preparation for the last day of my stay I perused my map carefully, studying the mythical villages which bound Annecy and to which the random sign might point, noting the number of spokes on each rond-point (each of the three differed from the others), and determining the precise angle at which to exit for each (for example, “enter at 6 o’clock, exit at 10 o’clock”).

The hour of truth had finally arrived and upon returning to Annecy I intrepidly and skillfully slalomed through each rond-point, calmly reciting navigation data to myself — “112 degrees to the left . . . ignore the sign for La Balme-de-Sillingy (that town can’t exist anyway) . . . p(x) = a0 + a1 + a2x2 + a3x3 . . . watch out: that sign for Véry is trying to distract me (very what?) . . . decrease velocity . . . no, not the direction of Dingy-Saint-Clair (why doesn’t she take a bath?) — until at last the end of our course was in sight — “That’s it, avenue de Cran.  Hurrah!  We’ve made it!”

We reached the hotel with great joy and a sense of accomplishment, eager to share our success story with Madame Adami, our quasi-palindromic maîtresse.  But as we pulled into the parking lot, we realized that we had forgotten to get some bottled water.  One-half hour later, after turning around, retracing our route, and finding some water . . . on the quaint, medieval streets of Annecy . . . we had missed our turn again.

I would soon learn that driving in a village in the Alps is child’s play when compared with driving in Paris.




The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (France)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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