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Driving in a foreign language

June 19, 2007

Way, way back when we were planning our move to Crete, R wanted to rent a car in London and drive down. It didn’t work out that way, which was something of a relief to me because I was terrified of driving in Italy. I still haven’t driven in Italy, but after driving on Crete I wonder if there’s anything to it. I have nothing to back this up, but I’ve heard that Greece has the highest rate of traffic fatalities in Europe – so really, how bad can Italy be?

What brings this all to mind is that yesterday I was driving back from the grocery on our two lane country road. It is well paved and substantially wider than any country road I ever saw in Greece. I heard a siren and soon saw a Gendarme van coming from the opposite direction, lights flashing.

I actually never experienced anything like this in Greece. I actually never saw a police car with its lights flashing, let alone running a siren or going somewhere. I reverted to my training from childhood and slowed down while pulling to the right. Granted that the van had no obstacles and could easily continue on its way without me pulling over, but I have always pulled over – better safe than sorry (plus, it is the law.)

There were two cars behind me and they seemed (from my rear view mirror) to be confused by my behavior. I never got to a full stop and the Gendarmes went their way quickly.  But it caused a little panic – what is the right thing to do? The thing is, if it is not common practice to pull over and stop in this scenario, I could cause accidents.

In Greece, a friend told me that Greeks drive like the people in Thailand. She said it’s more like a dance, drivers do what they want/need to do and others react and respond. Obviously if the data re: traffic fatalities is correct, the Greeks need some dancing lessons. In truth, though, the most dangerous people I saw behind the wheel in Crete were the tourists who had heard that ‘anything goes’ in Crete and paid no attention to other people on the road.

But now we’re here, in France, and I face driving in a third language. In France, for some reason, people entering a road from the right have right of way. I can’t figure how this is good, or even how it works – do you slow down to allow entry?  Do they charge out in front of anyone no matter what? I don’t know.

A big adjustment for me has been crosswalk etiquette (and law). In Greece, there were crosswalks, but they were equally ignored by both pedestrians and motorists. In France, if it even looks like you might be going to cross at the ‘zebra,’ motorists stop and wait. Even when traffic is heavy and they are going quickly. This has been a difficult thing for me to remember – but I haven’t clipped anyone yet. Back in the states, I never drove in the city much, and when I did crosswalks generally were equipped with lights telling pedestrians when to go (and motorists when not to go).

Here, people just step into the street when they want to cross, and all traffic simply stops.

I’m gearing up to get my driver’s license here in France.  After all these years of driving, it seems like this should be an easy thing. I think it will not be.

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