Europe roads

My first drive in Europe (and why I’m still annoyed about it)


What's it like driving in Europe for the first time?

One of my best friends is called Audrey.

Audrey is French and being French, it won’t surprise to you to learn that she lives in a place called Paris – a tourist resort famous for its massive spiky tower and numerous art warehouses. Around 8-9 years ago I decided I ought to pop across the English Channel and visit Audrey and her family, and so began my first drive in Europe.

Back then I owned a 2001 Audi TT Quattro. A car I absolutely adored because even though it wasn’t the best car to drive, it was quite a flash car or a guy in his early ’20s to own. Besides, this was the actual car used in the film ‘About a Boy’, so Rachel Weisz had sat in it. Rachel Weisz!

From my traditionally thin research, I’d discovered that the TT needed to be prepared for the trip to Europe, it had to have French things like headlight stickers, a “I haven’t drunk anything and this proves it” kit, a Chris Jericho-style pair of illuminated jackets, and a collection of spare light bulbs for said jackets. This could all be collected from a large orange shop on the way, so no need to worry about that.

Route-planner suggested that the driving distance to Paris was pretty short, the only issue I really had to worry about was how to cross the English Channel, a frustrating geographical obstacle which doubles up as a brilliant excuse to fleece travellers. The Channel Tunnel was too expensive – isn’t it always – and so I’d decided to do an overnight crossing in what can only really be described as a massive bastard of a boat. It took me only a few minutes to realise what an incredible bargain the Chunnel is.

The crossing was to be overnight. Presumably for no other than reason than a boat can only do 5mph when loaded with what looked like 2-3,000 freight trucks and all of Portsmouth’s cars on board. My plan to get a bit of sleep on the boat before my first drive in a foreign nation was well and ruined by Poseidon, who stuck his big fishy middle finger up at me and unleashed horrendous rolling seas upon us. Cue 7 hours of travel sickness and no sleep whatsoever. When the sun rose, I’d never been so happy to see land. Beautiful, French land in the form of the port of Le Havre. At least the journey to Paris would be simple, the worst was out of the way.

Well, it wasn’t, but then again it wouldn’t be when you haven’t packed a satellite navigation system or a map. The journey through the Northern French countryside and around historical Rouen that morning was actually pretty enjoyable. There were good, respectful drivers and smooth roads. Adapting to driving on the incorrect side of the road wasn’t an issue at all. I even went to a village. I even channelled my Year 8 French lessons to politely buy myself French baked pastries for breakfast. I drank politely-ordered coffee, too. Happiness and excitement were my two big feelings that day, and then it happened – I got to Paris.

Europe roads

Actually, I was only entering the area around Paris. Before entering the French capital you find yourself on the French M25, a road they call the boulevard périphérique, a very pretty word for such a cesspit of driving ability. Let’s get a serious comment out of the way first – this is a dangerous road to drive on. If the traffic’s light, people drive like utter maniacs, and if the traffic’s heavy, people still drive like utter maniacs, only there’s less space for them to do it in. At times, the traffic on the road is so heavy the cars come to a complete standstill – and this is the cue for the scooter riders to come past and knock your wing-mirrors off.

As it turned out, the périphérique was just the light starter to a three-course meal of utter driving misery. As I entered the built up areas around the City of Light I came across utter chaos, particularly on roundabouts where several thousand cars attempt to get around a giant roundabout with no defined lanes. There’s no way onto them, and there’s not really a way off them either. They are completely ridiculous, but I thought like a French, said “Putain” to myself, and pulled out infront of an old lady in a Peugeot 206. That harmless looking old lady spent the next 10-minutes swearing at me non-stop. Her stamina for abusing me was quite incredible, not even my ex-girlfriends would put that much effort into swearing at me.

Displaying what was a quite staggering amount of naivety, I assumed I’d eventually find where Audrey lived by just driving around. Incredible, that, isn’t it? With my French friends all working I had to rely on finding my own way, which is a bit like relying on paper bag to keep you safe during an earthquake.

Over 9 hours – yes 9 hours – of driving around Paris later, I finally arrived at my destination. An F1 ‘hotel’ that became known as my ‘prison’. A few years later my actual room in that actual hotel was used as the scene of a gun fight in the French TV drama ‘Spiral’. That tells you all you need to know about that, doesn’t it.

All these years later, and I’m still annoyed about that day. Not because the French are incapable of driving cars responsibly and with respect for other road users. Not because they’re incapable of being polite either. Nope, I’m annoyed because I was so unbelievably stupid. Who thinks they can just find their way around one of the world’s largest cities without any form of navigation?

Well, that would be me. What an idiot…