France – what an American will find surprising (or what I did, anyway)

  • Hotel rooms do not have clocks
  • Grapes have seeds
  • Bus drivers give change
  • Bathrooms cost money. Expect to pay 40-60 centimes per visit.  In the train stations, they are particularly well hidden. The one in Gare de Lyon is run by a company called “2theloo” which offers coupons for their other products. Yep, they’ve privatized the privy.
  • Bathrooms are clean and free of graffiti.  The exceptions are rare public bathrooms where you don’t pay. So it’s worth keeping monnaie (change) in your pocket for the high-class experience.
  • Fast freeways cost money. You’ll learn to appreciate the political struggle Eisenhower went through to build the Interstate highway system in the US.  In France, the roads lettered “A<#>” (e.g. A8) will be “péage” (toll) roads.  The D roads let you travel between 50 and 70 km/h typically (about 43 mph max), and traffic circles will be plentiful. But if you want US highway speeds (up to 130 km/h = 81mph) you’ll need to go on the more expensive roads.

    And, expensive they are.  Between gas prices (about $7.70/gallon) and the tolls (from Aix-en-Provence to Nice was about $22*) you’ll probably find the TGV (Train Grand Vitesse) to be cheaper, faster, and more pleasant for long distances.  The TGV train I was on between Paris and Avignon averaged 290-300 km/h, which is around 180 mph (There was a speedometer in the front of the car).**

    The non-toll roads offer a more relaxed and close-up experience. Better sight-seeing.

  • Fast freeways are clean and free of graffiti.  They claim video surveillance, but whatever, it works.
  • Freeway clover leafs do not exist. If you miss your exit, you are screwed. Turning around to go back means exiting the toll road, figuring out how the hell to get to the entrance you want, and paying the toll again to go back. Yep, you have to pay for the part of the road you didn’t want to be on in the first place. And those exits can be far apart.  Try doing this at night, it’s loads of fun.  GPS navigation is the best solution. Hint: google maps will remember a route when it’s disconnected from the internet, but it won’t search for a new one. The tourist info offices offer free Wi-Fi so you can search for new routes.

    It’s a good reason to prefer the non-toll roads, which have frequent traffic circles.  Those at least make it easy to correct if you mess up.

  • Drive with both feet. Automatic transmission is rare, and French drivers love to honk, so take a deep breath and don’t get flustered. Think of the honking as their way of expressing affection.
  • Think in a spiral. It’s the escargot. Navigation on French roads can be downright bizarre, especially near big cities.  For example, the entrance to Avignon is this giant one-way figure-8, that does NOT meet in the middle, with directional signs that are not at all helpful. Once I sat down with a map and studied the layout, I was able to get where I was going, but not (reliably) before that.  There’s a place where you look across and say “All I want to do is go up there and turn left!” but instead you have to go underneath an overpass and loop around, so you can turn right instead. Weird.

    Partially, this can be explained by the superimposition of modern driving onto medieval road maps, but my opinion is that there is a also general failure of French city planners to eliminate pointless complexity.

    Between big cities isn’t so bad, and the traffic circles are surprisingly easy to navigate once you get used to them.  Which doesn’t take any of the fun out of dodging huge delivery trucks as they share the dinky European roads with you. Fortunately, you generally have the right of way once you’re in the circle, which was not the case in the past.

  • There are probably a few I left out, so there may be updates …

* has an app for smart phones that will do currency conversions, or you can do them on the website

An easy way to think of speeds is that 80km/h is about 50 mph, so 40k/h is 25m/h, and so on. But there’s no requirement to do the conversion while driving, since they use the same units for everything.

** for the TGV bookings, or for the bigger routes. Booking in advance saves money. It’s worth going comfort class.

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