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Our life in France – cars and driving

February 7, 2010

(Please note that this post reflects our experience in the early 1990’s – I can’t speak for what anyone would experience today.)

I knew how to drive a manual transmission when we moved to France, but wanted a car with an automatic, because Ste. Foy was quite hilly and I didn’t have a lot of confidence with my ability with a clutch on a hill.  We looked high and low for a car with an automatic transmission and only found two and they were both out of our price range.  We went to a couple of huge car dealers and when we asked about automatics, they laughed at us.   I ended up with the car pictured above- it was a diesel with a manual transmission (and boy was the clutch stiff on that car! My left knee hurt for years after we left France.)  I got a diesel because I didn’t want to have to mess with the manual choke that gasoline engines have there.  This car was pretty nice by French standards, but it didn’t have automatic steering, automatic brakes, or air conditioning.

Getting a driver’s license in France is political (according to my old French teacher) and can be quite difficult to do, even for the French.  Luckily, France and the state we moved from had a reciprocal agreement, so we were able to get ours with no trouble.  A French driver’s license never expires, so I still have mine.

Every car in France is required to be insured and you have to display a little green card in your windshield to prove that your car is.  Getting insurance proved to be much tougher than getting our licenses.  When we told the insurance agent that we had been driving since we were 16 years old, he didn’t believe us.  Carl’s mother had his first driver’s license and sent it to us to show to him.

Vance was four and a half when we moved to France and had been out of a car seat and sitting in the front seat for a while (remember this was the 1990s).  You had to be 10 to sit in the front seat in France, so there was no more front seat for him.

Driving in France is much like driving in the US, although it seemed more aggressive to us.  There are a lot of traffic circles (like around the Arc de Triomphe) and at first, it was difficult to remember that the cars coming into the circle have priority over those already in it.

Parking in France could be a challenge.  The roads are narrow and the cities are old and there just aren’t that many parking spaces.  Double parking was common.  I tried not to do it, but sometimes I had to.  I came out one time and the person I was blocking in was hollering at me.  After he calmed down, he told me that when you double park, you’re expected to leave your car in neutral and leave the brake off, so your car can be pushed out of the way if necessary.

Parking meters were different in France.  One meter would serve the whole street.  After you parked, you bought a paper ticket from the meter (for however long you thought you needed) and placed it on your windshield.  There was no way to luck out and come across a meter with some time left on it.

One of my biggest frustration with driving in France came from the fact that they would close off streets whenever there was a manifestation (or protest) and believe me, that happened quite often.  Those caused some major traffic jams.  Carl and Vance got stuck in a traffic jam like that one time, and in the midst of all his frustration, Carl heard, “Vive la France!” from the back seat.

44 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2010 6:09 am

    Oh that’s funny. To leave you brake off so that it can pushed aside. I’m sharing these to Dad since he’s the one who drives for the family.

    How cute of your little kid! I could imagine everything.

  2. February 7, 2010 6:28 am

    I enjoyed this article. I love learning about different cultures, religions. lifestyles, etc. Whenever I meet someone new, I ask a lot of questions. Not to be “nosy” or “judgemental”, but to learn. You mentioned about being 16 to get drivers’ licenses old is it in France? Thank you for educating me.
    Cheryl Mash

  3. February 7, 2010 6:42 am

    I immediately got a sick feeling in my stomach just thinking about driving a stick in a hilly place. I would have been a mess! I found that I was nodding alot throughout this post, because it sounds alot like Poland. Their problem is the detours that pop up all over the place out of nowhere. They direct you off the road, but don’t lead you back. They leave you out there for dead, I swear. Last time we went over there, we brought navigation. Enough of that business.

  4. February 7, 2010 7:01 am

    I think I could handle a manual transmission in a rural area but I’d take the bus in the city. That said, I haven’t driven a car with manual since the early 90s. I love that the other driver calmed down enough to explain about leaving your double-parked car in neutral. Makes sense, well, except on a hill : )

  5. February 7, 2010 7:20 am

    These are so interesting. It’s funny that the parking reminds Sandy of Poland. It reminds ME of Chicago! LOL

  6. February 7, 2010 7:39 am

    I don’t know how to drive a manual yet but I’m going to soon – they also laugh at you in the UK if you want an automatic! I had to laugh at that last sentence, too. I’m glad there are no such protests going on where I live all the time.

  7. February 7, 2010 8:46 am

    I wonder if automatic transmissions are more popular there now? I know how to drive a standard transmission, but don’t think I’d want to with loads of hills.

    Thanks for sharing this interesting series with us Kathy.

  8. February 7, 2010 8:54 am

    Oh my gosh – did you ever drive the circle around the Arc de Triomphe?! I remember looking at all the traffic whizzing around and thinking there is no way I would every attempt to do that.

    With each of your posts I long to go back to Europe and spend some quality – and quantity – time there.

  9. February 7, 2010 9:17 am

    Vive la France! Too funny! I have never gotten the hang of driving a manual! Thank goodness I never had to live in France. I don’t think I could have managed!

  10. February 7, 2010 9:49 am

    Fortunately I was able to buy an automatic quite easily and my state also had a reciprical agreement with Germany so my license was not too big a deal to get (though it took a while still, because I had to get it translated by a certain agency which never seemed to be open and wasn’t accessible by public transport…)

  11. February 7, 2010 9:57 am

    After a week in Paris (the Metro!), we rented a car and drove many places, using a large Michelin automobile atlas. A wonderful book, especially given our experiences driving to the Dordogne. We tooled along an interstate-style autoroute (shown in the book). With no warning, the road ended, and a gate appeared with the word DEVIATION and an exit to the right. From there you are on your own until you find the autoroute again. The autoroute (10 years ago) was a complete line on the map but a very incomplete route on the ground. I wonder if it done now.

  12. February 7, 2010 10:29 am

    Vive la France!! Too funny! I didn’t know that about French parking meters. I wonder if it’s still the same.

  13. kaye permalink
    February 7, 2010 11:03 am

    We had a standard transmission for years and only gave it up due to knee issues. I can relate to yours hurting for years. Kudos to you for driving in the city traffic circles. Scary!

  14. February 7, 2010 12:39 pm

    Love these posts Kathy! And I think they are a treasure for your son who may not remember everything like you do. Did you ever hear Bill Cosby’s comedy bit about driving a manual car on the hills of San Francisco? It ends with the people just stopping and opening a used car lot. You would very much appreciate his telling it!

  15. February 7, 2010 2:15 pm

    Well I can say without a doubt I would never make it driving in France! lol.

  16. February 7, 2010 3:54 pm

    I’ve been meaning to tell you Kathy that I have really been enjoying your posts about life in France. So informative and interesting. I do understand about a car with a stubborn clutch. We had one like that when we first married. In fact, my husband, who was my fiance then, taught me how to drive a stick shift. Hmmm….we learned that maybe it is not best for him to be my teacher. 🙂 Austin has lots of hills and I was so terrified that I would roll back into someone.

  17. February 7, 2010 4:31 pm

    I’ve never learned how to drive a car with a stick shift and hope to never have to! What an experience with cars in France. We were there in
    ’96 and I can attest to the aggressive driving as a passenger…whoo, we were close to getting in many accidents. That’s interesting that the drivers license never expire in France.

  18. February 7, 2010 5:09 pm

    I have only driven once without power steering and power breaks, and it was a real pain, so you have my sympathies! I learned how to drive on a clutch though, so that hasn’t been a problem, although I do prefer automatics because they are so much easier.

    It sounds like driving was a real adventure over there. Did you have any mishaps getting used to driving on the other side of the road?

  19. February 7, 2010 6:54 pm

    Kathy I learned to drive on a standard and hated it. I just don’t have the coordination with my feet so its automatic for me.

    That is interesting that your licence is good for life. Not sure what its like in the US but I have to pay every 3 years for my licence.

    Another great story. I love reading them.

  20. February 7, 2010 7:47 pm

    I’m so enjoying hearing about your life in France!

    Despite the sore knee you must have have built some serious muscles with all the work steering and such required. I remember having a car like that too and I’m so glad we don’t have to deal with that anymore. LOL

    Looking forward to the next post 🙂

  21. February 7, 2010 8:18 pm

    Sounds like a great challenge. What an experience. My last three vehicles have been stick. I am used to it but still am terrified of hills. LOL.. Viva La France from the backseat. 🙂

  22. February 7, 2010 8:55 pm

    I’ve not been driving for a while so it’s definitely a challenge to me, no matter if the vehicle is an automatic or manual! 😉

  23. February 7, 2010 8:58 pm

    I had to learn to drive on a stick shift, and that’s all I’ve ever owned. But I refuse to drive in San Francisco…the thought of all those hills makes me shudder.

    Vive la France! That’s just too cute.

  24. February 7, 2010 9:03 pm

    Wow, the driving sounds like one of the most difficult aspects of living in France!

  25. February 7, 2010 9:13 pm

    Your last sentence made me laugh!! This sounds like a fun time but also a crazy time. I would find it hard to drive without power steering and brakes!!!

  26. February 7, 2010 9:28 pm

    Boy … this sounds like one of the most challenging aspects yet of life in France!! My husband would be so screwed … he can’t drive a manual transmission to save his life.

  27. February 7, 2010 9:29 pm

    I really like these posts, Kathy. Leaving your car in neutral if you’re going to double park is such an interesting idea!

  28. kadybug permalink
    February 7, 2010 10:52 pm

    I so enjoy reading your Life in France posts. It gives me a different perspective about life in a foreign country.

  29. February 7, 2010 11:31 pm

    And I thought it was hard to drive in California!

    Great post. I know other places have those “roundabouts”, such as Boston and Mexico. I’ve never actually driven around one but it seems as if you’d need to practice a bit.

  30. February 8, 2010 2:39 am

    I’m not sure I’d be willing to leave my car brakes in neutral… LOL! Thanks for sharing this, Kathy!

  31. February 8, 2010 9:24 am

    I thought it was bad when we traveled to Honolulu. Driving in France sounds nerve wracking!

  32. stacybuckeye permalink
    February 8, 2010 11:56 am

    Out of the mouths of babes 🙂 The double parking would really stress me out and leaving the car in neutral just sounds wrong. I’m not sure I could do it.

  33. February 8, 2010 12:25 pm

    LOL Vive la France! How did you do with the standard on the hills? Well, I hope. Thanks for another great article.

  34. February 8, 2010 1:59 pm

    Driving in a foreign country would stress me out! At least they drive on the same side of the road as us though.

  35. February 8, 2010 3:22 pm

    These are so much fun to read. The double parking “rules” strike me as funny. Probably not funny if you’re the one who’s been trapped.

  36. February 8, 2010 3:46 pm

    I find the fact that you had to leave the doors unlocked and the car in neutral very amusing for some reason. I know it probably wasn’t funny, but the thought of being able to move anybody’s car out of the way when you need to just strikes me as a really strange and funny thing!

  37. February 8, 2010 6:38 pm

    I think this is the reason why I have not ventured outside of this country. I do okay with change if I know I am in it for the long haul but short trips like for vacation, would be too shocking to my system.

    Your aversion to a manual transmission is something I can totally relate to. After the Northridge quake, I vowed never to have one again. All that stop and go traffic for 4+ hours just to get 15 miles… ugh!

  38. February 9, 2010 2:20 am

    We recently got those types of “parking meters” in Portland, where you buy the ticket and stick it on the window. No chance of finding money on the meter, but you can move your car and use the same ticket…and sometimes people will leave their not-used-up ticket stuck to the machine when they leave. 🙂

  39. February 9, 2010 7:48 am

    Kathy, I think this is your best France post yet. I can relate to stick shifts / hills and lack of air conditioning. I had one when I moved to Roanoke and there were places I hated to drive because of the slopes at the stop signs. I would also take a shower before work in the morning and be full of sweat before I got there. That car, as much as I loved it – it was my first brand new car, lasted only that first summer.

  40. February 9, 2010 9:54 am

    In my neighborhood double parking is the only way to go, although they are trying to fix that with angle parking.

    As always I love these interesting and informative posts. The reciprocal agreements are neat. I wonder why it’s on an individual level. Thank you for sharing.

  41. February 10, 2010 10:46 am

    I’m really enjoying your stories about France. I’d be in a pickle, though, having NEVER driven a car with a manual transmission.

  42. February 10, 2010 8:08 pm

    Can you imagine leaving your car unlocked and in neutral in the U.S? Bye-bye, car!

  43. February 13, 2010 8:22 pm

    LOL at Vance with his Vive la France! I always think of Casablanca when I hear that phrase 🙂

  44. February 18, 2010 11:20 am

    Wow! This whole post was very interesting. Did you have culture shock when you came back home?

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