Driving in France – Survival List Number Two

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Right hand drive Driving in France   Survival List Number Two1. If you import your right-hand drive car it can be complicated as your vehicle will need to conform to French manufacture and use regulations. If it’s a model or make not on sale in France things could become a real hassle. And if you stay in France for more than a month you’ll have to change to French registration (in theory at least). So if you envisage long term or permanent expatriation it might be better to make arrangements to sell your right-hand drive vehicle in the UK and buy a left-hand drive one in France.

Centre de controle technique 300x154 Driving in France   Survival List Number Two2. If your car’s getting on for four years old you’ll have to think about taking it along for an MOT (le contrôle technique) at an officially-approved centre. After, it’s every two years. Personally I find it’s better to first take it to your local garage where they can do a pré-contrôle. This can be done at the same time as you have it serviced. They know the ropes and will check (and rectify if necessary) all that needs doing. They’ll then take it along to the centre de contrôle for you. I advise this because if you go there directly and it fails, you’ll have to take it to your garage and have all the faults put right before submitting (and paying) again. I could be wrong but I suspect garages and MOT centres (they’re privately owned) are in collusion, and when a garage sends them a customer there’s some sort of understanding between them that if you have this pre-check you won’t be failed.

Peage autoroute Driving in France   Survival List Number Two3. Most French motorways are toll paying where the entrance is marked ‘Péage.’ They’re designated by an  ‘A’ (Autoroute) followed by the number (e.g. A42) – so don’t confuse this with a UK ‘A’ road. On short stretches the amount can be a flat rate (or even free) but it usually depends on the distance you drive – even though the toll you’re called upon to pay can vary, sometimes considerably, from one motorway to the next. When you enter, rather than being served by a toll booth attendant it’s now more and more common to take a ticket from a machine. It’s located on the left so if you don’t have a front-seat passenger in your right-hand drive car you’ll have to get out. When you leave the motorway you give your ticket to the attendant at the toll booth. However, more and more of these are automatized and payment is by credit card or cash. Oh yes, don’t lose your ticket or you’ll be required to pay the maximum toll.

Autoroute Driving in France   Survival List Number Two4. French motorway signs are blue and usually indicate the destination more frequently than the motorway number. So if you’re driving from Lyon to Chambéry  you’re likely to see more ‘Chambéry’ signs than ‘A43′.

Deux voies Driving in France   Survival List Number Two5. Many French motorways are two-lane only, or have log two-way stretches. Be careful as there can be sudden traffic slow-downs due to trucks taking ages to inch past each other.

6. Be careful on French motorways as many drivers lack road discipline. It’s the usual tricks: in spite of the 130 km/h limit apparently 39% of them drive at speeds between 130 and 150 km/h. When there are three lanes, one in three hog the middle one (so if you drive on the inside lane you tend to get boxed in). And there’s always that irresistible tendency (in spite of repeated warnings to the contrary) to stay too close behind the vehicle they’re following  – even when it’s raining and the road surface is slippery.

7. I know it sounds obvious but the French do drive on the right. You’ll soon get used to it but you’ve got to concentrate at the beginning.  A useful aid is to make sure that you as a driver are nearest the side of the road.

8. Electronic speed camera detectors are illegal in France.  Simply having one in your car could render you liable to a fine.

9. Driving your right-hand car in France can be a bit tricky when it comes to overtaking as you’ve got to pull out more to see if there’s any oncoming traffic. If you don’t have a driver as a front-seat passenger to tell you it’s safe to go ahead you can get better visibility if you fall further back.

Limitations vitesse Driving in France   Survival List Number Two10. Maximum speed limits are clearly displayed on all roads in France so I’ll  let the diagram on the left do the talking. At present there are rumours about lowering them all by 10 km/h. When it’s raining you’re supposed to reduce all these speeds by 20 km/h on the motorway and 10 km/h on other roads. it will come as no surprise that few French motorists actually do this.

Radar routier 300x150 Driving in France   Survival List Number Two11. Be careful of roadside and police in-vehicle speed cameras – especially in villages where the limit is 50 km/h. You can easily get caught out. If you’re really in a hurry you can add 5 km/h to these speeds without running too much risk of getting a fine, but anything beyond and you’re pushing your luck.

Carrefour sans panneau Driving in France   Survival List Number Two12. When approaching an unmarked road junction (i.e. no Stop or Cédez le passage (Give Way) sign), the rule is to give way to all traffic approaching you from the right – even if the road is minor. This kind of junction is now admittedly rare but still exists, especially in remote country areas. However, when you’re approaching a junction from a minor road it’s better to play safe and assume that drivers approaching from the left on the major road aren’t going to give way.


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Driving in France – A Survival List

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French driver Driving in France   A Survival ListHere are a dozen tips which I consider it vital the newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat driver (and pedestrian) should know when it comes to driving in a country where, for most, getting your hands on a steering wheel means that from now on it’s every man for himself. They’re based on my own experiences during more than 40 years of survival on French roads. Since the subject is practically inexhaustible I’ll be giving some more tips next week.

Passage pieton Driving in France   A Survival List1. Don’t cross the road on a pedestrian crossing before being absolutely sure that oncoming car is going to stop. Though French drivers have made immense progress over the last decades in matters of road courtesy, there still lurks the odd miscreant who still considers pedestrians to be his worst enemy. Similarly, if you’re in the driving seat think twice before stopping to let a pedestrian cross. The driver behind might not have anticipated you doing such a stupid thing, and … well, I’ll leave you to imagine the rest.

Feux tricolores Driving in France   A Survival List2. If you’re first in a line of traffic waiting at a red light, be sure to have your handbrake off, first gear engaged and revving up for a Grand Prix start the instant green appears. French traffic lights change directly from red to green (the sequence is green-amber-red-green)! If you don’t, you’ll be mercilessly honked at from the rear. And don’t get all agitated when a French driver does this. Even though in the UK using your horn in stationary configuration is tantamount to a declaration of war, this is not necessarily the case in France where the more absent-minded driver has been seen to thank his honker(s) with a friendly wave of the hand.

3. If you’re waiting at a halt sign and the car approaching from the left has its right indicator on, don’t assume the driver’s going to turn right and pull out in front of him. Do the same as most French drivers: wait until he actually starts turning as he may simply be unaware it hasn’t been cancelled.

4. Don’t be surprised if the driver of the car ahead doesn’t signal his intention to turn, or to change lanes on the motorway. What matters above all is that he knows where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody else’s business but his own.

Tailgating Driving in France   A Survival List5. Think twice before maintaining too respectful a distance between you and the car in front. In France it’s not the done thing. Since the Frenchman’s love of overtaking is only eclipsed by his hatred of being overtaken, the only way to avoid humiliation is to position and keep his front bumper as close as possible to the rear of the car ahead. Otherwise even clapped-out jalopies will try to get into the space between.

6. Don’t be surprised if you notice at night that lots of vehicles have badly adjusted headlights, or only one working. What matters above all for the French driver is that he can see where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody else’s business but his own.

7. Despite what I’ve indicated above, your right-hand drive car is legally obliged to have its headlight beams adjusted for driving on the right. Stick-on adapters can be used.

8. Don’t be astonished if the driver of the car in front doesn’t seem to notice he’s driving through a very late amber, or even an early red light. For most French drivers traffic lights are yet one more obstacle (along with roundabouts, stop signs, pedestrian crossings (especially when there’s a pedestrian on them), as well as les flics, maliciously placed in his way to stop them from improving their moyenne – their average journey time.

9. Don’t be surprised if that gentle, well-mannered neighbour of yours turns into a monster at the wheel. Getting a steering wheel in his hands frequently brings out the Mr Hyde in the French driver.

Panneau stop Driving in France   A Survival List10. It’s important to know that a French Stop sign means exactly what it says. So make sure you bring your vehicle to a complete halt. Reducing your speed to 1/2 km/h is not enough. Sometimes police cars are lying in ambush and you could get a fine for 90 euros with one licence point less.

Box junction Driving in France   A Survival List11. Even though the box junction exists in France (it’s indicated by chequered white boxes painted on the road) most French drivers haven’t got the faintest idea what it’s all about. So you can drop that silly rule which states that you mustn’t enter if your exit road isn’t clear. If you do try to play it à l’anglaise you’ll be waiting until kingdom come. And you’ll be honked at, too. So don’t be afraid to stop bang in the middle like everybody else. I mean, if you can’t beat ‘em you can only join ‘em. And remember they’ve got what the Anglo-Saxons haven’t: it’s called le Système D which means being opportunistic, and using a combination of personal resources and what’s readily at hand to get you out of a mess. And believe you me, it works! Usually everything ends up sorting itself out!

EU driving licence Driving in France   A Survival List12. Your British EU member state driver’s licence is valid in France so you don’t need to exchange it. Committing a driving offence, however, automatically means having to swop it for a French one (so that points can be deducted). When it expires, or if it’s lost or stolen, you must renew or replace it with a French licence. You do this by applying to your local Préfecture. Since most of the French are genetically hostile to foreign languages – especially when it’s English – you’ll probably have to pay for an officially-certified translation of the original. And you’ll also have to provide proof of your address and identity (though you’re not required to produce your grandmother’s birth certificate). And just to make sure you’re sound in body and mind you might even have to take a medical.

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10 Tips for Wild Mushroom Hunters

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Wild mushrooms 10 Tips for Wild Mushroom HuntersIf you’re attracted to France by the prospect of living a rural idyll, wild mushroom picking will probably be high on your list. Literally hundreds of varieties of cèpes grow in the forests and fields. Here are ten tips which I hope will help to make it a rewarding experience.

1. The exact quantity of mushrooms you’re legally allowed to pick depends on the region but is usually limited to around two kilos per day. Recently there have been problems with some East Europeans who actually camp in the forests, remove commercial quantities, literally pillaging certain parts. As a result, mushroom picking in certain areas has now been restricted to the locals. Be aware that officers of the ONF (Office national des forêts) are now on the prowl, and offenders could find themselves facing a maximum fine of 750 euros. So play the game and only pick for your personal consumption.

Propriété privée 10 Tips for Wild Mushroom Hunters2. The rules of elementary politeness require you to ask the owner’s permission when you envisage mushrooming in private fields and forests.

3. That forest you go wild mushroom picking in is probably vast (some forests in France are more than 300 square kilometres in area), so don’t get too carried away. If you stray too far from the beaten track you could lose your sense of orientation and find yourself hopelessly lost. So don’t forget your mobile so you can call the police.

Pharmacie 10 Tips for Wild Mushroom Hunters4.  Some wild mushrooms and fungi are poisonous, and the visual difference between edible or not can be minimal. Eating the wrong ‘uns can cause great discomfort, even death (each year approximately 30 people never live to pick again) – so choose only those you know. If in doubt get your local pharmacist to give it the once over. As part of his studies he’s been trained to identify the dangerous ones. But it’s probably even better to ask a local.

Cueillir des champignons 10 Tips for Wild Mushroom Hunters5. Like many things in France mushroom picking is subject to a myriad of rules and regulations as to how, when and where. For more detailed information consult your local mairie. The most important rules are that they can only be picked when a certain size, and you’ve got to cut (and never uproot) the stalk at the bottom using a knife only. And you’re also supposed to carry them in a wicker basket so that the spores can fall out. This helps propagation.

Hunter 10 Tips for Wild Mushroom Hunters6. You might think that the most dangerous part of wild mushroom gathering is the risk of picking and eating a poisonous one. This is not necessarily the case. Always remember that in the Autumn months you’ll be sharing the forest with hunters – so you could be mistaken for a deer or a wild pig. The French chasseur is short-sighted enough (or such a bad shot) to be the cause of around 170 accidents per year – more than a score of which are fatal, and three score of which are considered extremely serious. Roughly 20 of these accidents involve non-hunters while the remaining 150 stay in the family.  So be wary when you venture into the forest – even if it’s just for a post-prandial stroll. It might be a good idea to wear a fluorescent jacket.

Morel mushrooms 10 Tips for Wild Mushroom Hunters7. If you live more in the south you might be tempted to go looking for the distinctive honeycombed and uniquely-flavoured morille (morel) mushroom. They’re expensive to buy in shops (350 euros a kilo), and prized by gourmet cooks, many of whom consider them equal to truffles. Don’t go after them in Autumn, though, for the simple reason that they only grow at the beginning of Spring. They pop up mainly in forests when the snow begins to melt. They tend to grow around pine trees in the mountains, and near elm and ash elsewhere. And they often hide among dead leaves. It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack but don’t get discouraged. You’ll gradually acquire a sixth sense and it’ll all be worth it.

8. You can dry them by piercing the stalk with a needle and thread and hanging them upside down in a dry room.

9. Don’t expect even your French pals to tell you where the best morille spots are. They’re jealously guarded secrets. One of my friends finds hundreds  every year but the only information I’ve been able to drag out of him as to their whereabouts is ‘South from here.’ In the Jura where I live the best spots are only passed on from father (usually on his deathbed) to son.

10. Uncooked wild mushrooms freeze badly but dry well, and can be stored in airtight containers. However, they’re best consumed the day they’re picked. Don’t put them in a plastic bag as this will cause them to sweat.

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Eating at a Restaurant in France – 20 Golden Tips

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Gastronomic restaurant Eating at a Restaurant in France   20 Golden TipsHere are 20 tips the newly-landed Anglo-Saxon expat might find useful when wining and dining in a restaurant in France. Some of them will also apply if you’re invited to dinner at the home of those French friends of yours.

1. For many Anglos (and Americanos), eating a meal in a restaurant, wherever it may be, is like trying to run a four minute mile. Perhaps it’s the fast-food syndrome. Just remember that when you eat in a French restaurant there’s no hurry – so relax and enjoy it. And even if you do sometimes have to wait a bit between courses (there are, of course, limits), don’t cast incriminating looks at your watch. And for Heaven’s sake don’t, I repeat don’t threaten to walk out!

2. Even though you did mistake the main course for a second starter in that three Michelin star restaurant, don’t ask the waiter for more. It’s not the done thing. Remember, French gastronomical cooking favours quality, freshness and refined presentation rather than quantity. I mean, you can always fill up with bread (it should come in limitless supplies). And you can also draw consolation from the fact that the cheese and dessert courses are to come.

3. If you decide to go for the steak you’ll be asked, of course, how you’d like it. There are four degrees of cooking: bleu (extra rare, i.e. cooked on a candle); saignant (rare); à point (medium), and bien cuit (well done). Be aware that very few French people ask for their steak well done. It could come with a consistency very similar to shoe leather. Even though many Anglos tend to feel faint at the slightest trace of blood, my advice would be to steer a middle course, so ask for it ‘à point.’ Or you could choose the fish.

4. If you order lamb chops in an English restaurant these would normally be cooked right through (and served with the ubiquitous mint sauce). Be aware that in some French restaurants they’re automatically served rare. In others you have the same options as with steak, but the word saignant is often replaced by rose (pink). With roast beef you’ve got no choice. It automatically comes red in the middle.

5. Even though in Anglo-Saxon land bread without butter is only deemed fit to be thrown out for the sparrows, this is not the case in France where unbuttered bread is the rule. The only exception is at breakfast time when it can be liberally buttered and jammed.

6. The above applies especially to cheese. For the French the only possible accompaniment to cheese is plain bread. And don’t ask for cream crackers or cheese biscuits. They won’t know what you mean.

7. Be warned that le French Dunk (the common French habit of using a piece of bread to soak up that delicious marchand de vin sauce in much the same way as a mop is employed to clean the kitchen floor) is frowned upon in the best of circles – though apparently French eating etiquette allows it when bread is impaled on fork. Personally, I find the French have a more liberal interpretation of what constitutes good table manners – especially when it comes to normally accepted rules on how you should use your knife and fork. But there again my Mum was a stickler for that sort of thing, and most of it  remains. Remember, it was the French who invented the pleasures of eating and the English who decided the rules.

8. Don’t order a large cup of coffee (as some Americans do) to drink with your meal. The same goes for Coca Cola (Americans again).  Beer also tends to be not quite right. Go either for mineral water which can be plate (still) or pétillante (sparkling). Or, far better, order some wine. In many cases you can order an inexpensive pichet (jug) of their house wine.

9. Don’t think you can have cheese at any time during a meal (Americans again). And if you can help yourself to the cheese board (in many restaurants the waiter will serve you), don’t leave it looking as if it’s been hit by an Exocet missile. So don’t hack your portion. And don’t cut the best piece for yourself.

10. In France it’s considered the height of bad manners to cut the lettuce in your salad using your knife and fork. If the leaf’s too big use them to fold it up into a mouth-friendly parcel.

11. Even though you’re absolutely ravenous and would like to pick the bone clean, resist the temptation to pick that chicken leg up. It could be a messy business. It’s certainly less practical but it’s considered better manners to dismember it using your knife and fork. If you’re meant to use your fingers a special finger bowl will be provided.

12. Don’t ask for ketchup to put on your French fries. Even though things are changing in restaurants of any pretension the waiter might not be able to conceal his horror. The same goes for brown and other bottled sauces and condiments.

13. The French are rightly proud of their cuisine, so treat it with the respect they’re convinced it deserves. When you’re served that foie gras keep well off the subject of force feeding (or animal cruelty in general). Oh yes, and don’t spread it on your toast. It’s not Marmite.

14. It’s the custom in France to let women order first in a restaurant.

15. If you can’t quite finish off that tender entrecôte steak, it might be a good idea to think twice before asking for a doggie bag so that Rover (or his owner) can partake of (or continue) the feast at home. Even though things are now changing, it’s still not really the done thing in many French restaurants, so you might get strange looks.

16. When the waiter pours some wine for you to taste it’s not really to see if you like it. It’s to make sure it’s not corked. This gives it a distinct, wet cardboard smell. So instead of actually tasting it you can just swirl it around in your glass, get your nose in there and give it a sniff. The same test can be made to make sure it hasn’t turned into vinegar.  Cheaper wine comes more and more with a screw top – so it’s a bit pointless nosing it as it just can’t be corked.

17. Be suspicious if that pichet of red wine you ordered is served chilled. This is the usual way to hide the harsh taste of low quality wine.

18. Often in cheaper restaurants knives and fork are not replaced. So when you’ve finished eating your entrée leave them by the side of your empty plate. If you don’t the waiter will do it for you. You can wipe your knife on a piece of bread.

19. As a child, when I’d finished eating my Mum always insisted on me putting knife and fork together on my plate in a half past six configuration. In a restaurant, she said, this acts as a sign to the waiter that he can take your plate away.  In France the position tends to be twenty past four (though it’s not often observed).

20. Oh yes. I almost forgot. Don’t put your hands on your knees under the table when you’re not eating. For some inexplicable reason (perhaps some Frenchmen have wandering palms), it’s considered not the done thing. Rest both forearms gently on the table so that they’re clearly visible to all.

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