Any successful transition from engine propulsion to that provided by foot involves, of course, finding a suitable place to deposit one’s car. In busy English towns the density of traffic, stringent parking regulations and a general lack of space can make this a daunting task. And even though town centre car parks may be found, these require payment of a not inconsiderable fee together with a scrupulous respect of the time paid for. What’s more, English car parks are frequently under the surveillance of sadistically inclined attendants who gain fiendish pleasure from issuing the stiffest fines for the slightest deviation. And in the event of serious transgression they have at their disposal a form of dissuasion – almost unknown in France – of such diabolical efficiency that the very mention of it is enough to strike terror in the heart of the most intrepid driver: the offending car will be mercilessly clapped in the steely grip of the wheel clamp, release from whose clutches can only be obtained by payment of an extortionist fine.
In addition, once he has finally found a vacant space, the English motorist is required to leave his vehicle tidily within its limits. For it is sternly brought to his notice that the driver who leaves his car with wheels straddling, or even touching the lines, will also be exposed to a punitive fine. On the contrary, In France enough indulgence is reserved for this type of minor transgression for it to become a relatively common practice. It goes without saying that in a country which prides itself on having produced an Iron Lady, sanctions are applied as unwaveringly as the parking space lines.
This was brought home to my French side during a recent holiday in England when I decided to do some shopping in a nearby town. After cruising round the main car park for at least a quarter of an hour I finally spotted someone pulling out of a parking space. After hastily depositing my car in it, I bought a ticket, duly stuck it behind my windscreen and then set off for a stroll around the shops. On coming back (well within the time paid for) I couldn’t help noticing that a slip of paper had been tucked behind the driver’s windscreen. Imagine my stupefaction on reading that it was notification of a fine ‘for not parking within the designated area’. Though it was true that, viewed from a certain angle, one of my front tyres could possibly have been conceived as overlapping one line by no more than an inch, I keenly felt the injustice of a sanction which imposed a not inconsiderable financial penalty for such a trivial fault. So, on seeing the car park attendant not far away (she seemed to be taking pleasure in writing out another fine), I walked up to her and calmly explained my point of view. Words couldn’t have fallen on deafer ears. It must have been my Frenchman who then suggested a change of tactics. in a laudable attempt to apply the Système D, I affirmed that the car next to which I’d left my vehicle had been parked so badly that I’d had no option but to leave it with a tyre touching the line. She remained totally unmoved. Finally, pointing to a nearby car, one wheel of which could also possibly have been conceived as touching one of the lines it was parked inside, I angrily asked why she hadn’t been good enough to give him a fine too. She politely thanked me and began writing one out.
When it comes to parking at the side of a street the Englishman in me might be forgiven for thinking that, in a country such as France where mathematical logic is held in the highest esteem, a suitable parking place is generally considered to be one whose length exceeds that of the car. He would be hopelessly wrong. That same desire to maintain the closest possible contact with fellow drivers on the highway can assume an even more intimate dimension when it comes to parking in town; for the French driver shows a remarkable ability in defying the laws of elementary arithmetic by introducing himself into spaces which the length of his car should not normally allow. How does he do it? Apart from the fact that it is a relatively common sight to see a car parked obliquely with one wheel (or even two) reposing firmly on the pavement, Parisian drivers have developed a more drastic technique which, for the moment at least, would be unthinkable to the Anglo-Saxon mind. The method – that of parking by ear – consists in diving head first into the smallest space, and then with eyes tightly shut, proceeding to create enough room for one’s vehicle by systematically shunting the one to the front and rear.
In England, on the other hand, when it comes to street parking that same respectful distance is scrupulously applied as between vehicles on the move. The English driver will usually leave a minimum margin of at least six feet (three in front and the same distance at the back) so that the driver of the car parked in front or the one behind may extricate his vehicle without undue manoeuvring. It must have been the Frenchy in me who was au volant that day I parked in the street of another English town. Having left at least a foot between my vehicle and the one in front, I switched off the engine and was just extracting key from ignition when its driver happened to appear. After gazing dubitatively at the dozen or so inches he’d been granted, he stormed up, rapped loudly on the driver’s window and, even before I’d got it fully down, began castigating me in the strongest possible terms for ‘parking too bloody close,’ and ‘not giving a damn about other road users.’ It goes without saying that remonstrances of this nature would have met with open-mouthed incredulity in France.