Paris is a great city in many ways. In other ways it can be terrible. One of the ways in which Paris is absolutely horrific is its traffic. Observing this seemingly organized chaos from the sidewalk café can probably be exotic, interesting, and entertaining. Observing the Paris traffic from a moving vehicle for which you yourself are responsible for maneuvering is a completely different world. Paris may be the city of cities, but the traffic is pure jungle. Going into close combat with the Parisians on wheels is one of those adventures you will look back at laughing one day, a story to tell your grandchildren. However, when you are actually in the smack middle of it you are closer to tears or a mental breakdown.
Having said that…The Paris weekend for us four Swedish out-of-towners had come to an end. As a glorious finish of our weekend we thought it would be a good idea to drive straight into the lion’s den, parade up the Champs Elysees, make a few laps around the Triumph Arc, and then march out of Paris in victory. That idea should have been subject to serious review, criticism, and thorough research. We all have our moments of making less than wise decisions. This was certainly one of those moments.
The first part of the journey from the outskirts of Paris towards the center went pretty well. The straight roads and the boulevards are rather straightforward go-with-the-flow routes. It’s when you get to the roundabouts that you’re entering a whole new universe of traffic mayhem.
Roundabouts in France cannot be avoided. When the concept of roundabouts was invented and introduced to the market, France must have gotten a bulk discount. They stacked up on roundabouts, and since there is no such thing as a “roundabout warehouse”, they had to put them into action, scattering them around the country. Randomly distributed throughout France and Paris, they effectively create confusing and dangerous obstacles to any sort of reasonably logical driving.
Entering the roundabouts is fairly easy; try not to get hit, and you’re in. Then, as if appearing out of the air, there are cars everywhere. There are no visible lanes; you create your own space. The drivers around you with their obvious stay-out-of-my-way attitude could not care less about what might happen to you and your car. Keep a safe distance to the car in front of you – it will slam the brakes sooner or later without any sort of warning, that’s a given. Keep a safe distance to the car behind you – it will try to pass you, preferably by going through you since that seems to be the shortest way. Definitely, and most importantly, keep an eye on the cars to your left and to your right. They are not interested in whether they hit you or not, if you crash or not yielding for them, if you have to go up in smoke in order to avoid a collision – if they feel that a sudden changing of directions is in their best interest, they will do so.
Given these hazardous conditions, we headed straight for the Arc. All went relatively well until we reached the Louvre. There our journey came to a halt, road blocks effectively preventing further advancements, blocking all access to the Champs Elysees and the Triumph Arc.
Apparently it was decided that a bunch of guys on bicycles should have the streets all to themselves this day to finish their little race. At the time it seemed like a pretty unfair and rude way of interrupting our trip. But, in hindsight, I guess letting those guys finish the Tour de France like they’ve always done in central Paris made sense. After all, trying to enter the finishing area of one of the largest and most legendary athletic events in the world, with a rental car in one of the largest cities in Europe, having totally overlooked this event in the news, was admittedly a bit ignorant…
So, back up, turn around, get the hell out of there. Problem was, once you’re in there, getting out is no easy feat. Paris sucks you in like a whirlwind and throws you around in circles until you by pure coincidence happen to see a sign that could lead you to freedom. Map, some would suggest. Yes, a wonderful idea, but one that would require at least a tiny bit of motivation and skill of co-drivers to assist. Finally, one of those very sparingly distributed signs for a way out – or a way anywhere for that matter – appears. A traffic sign suggesting that the highway to freedom is near. Lance Armstrong might have claimed the trophy of Tour de France that day, but our own little battle and victory over the city of Paris surely was a greater accomplishment.