The Game of Poulet
For some reason, only known to divinity, it seems to conspire that whenever one has a small car in city, like a Clio, everyone else is driving something smaller like a Smart fortwo, pre-BMW Mini or Axiom, a plastic bodied city car. Soaring AUVs like the Crosswind or Thai made pick up trucks like a Strada would lumber as behemoths in Paris. The great and the good they may be here, they won't make it thru rue de Marlesherbes on a Thursday night. Though they may just clear the flanks of both phalanxes of parked, usually dirty cars, the high ground clearances and torque abundant diesel engines of these Asian trucks are also no match for impromptu drag races against Euro micros with buzzy engines. Or the proverbial race in a game of poulet or chicken.
Barely made it
The straight but narrow rue de la/via/calle of most old European cities are usually restricted parking zones where blue discs left under windshields serve as authorized pay and display permits. But at night, they turn into restricted passage due to the locals' insistence that they can park anywhere they please because 1. they are tax payers; 2. they are locals; and 3. they do not take much space as one half of their minuscule cars is mounted on the sidewalk.
Mexican stand off in Paris
So picture this: streets that can accommodate 2 cars going opposing directions, now accommodate 3 - with one moving in one direction while the other 2 in the opposing direction remain stationary, one stopped, the other parked. So what happens when you come across someone going against your direction? Well, try as you might, you can't help it. So this is where nimble, peppy little French/Italian/Spanish cars prove their mettle. Loads of bravado and insouciance helps too. The technique is to max rev your little 1100cc mini compact, preferably manual, to make as much noise as EU exhaust regulations allow and to aim for the far end of the street, to “claim” as much of it to force the other guy coming down the other way to back up. Never mind if some drunk were to cross your path. Those who just bought a Wigo or Mirage or Celerio or Brio, chalk this up as another advantage.
Sometimes, you'll win. Just make sure you avoid eye contact with he or she that you beat lest you see unfathomable hand gestures and curled lips. And when you lose, console yourself. Despite all that power under your hood, you chose to be the better man/gentleman. Even as City Hall intermittently cracks down on inconsiderate parking, to the detriment of the vigilance they accord to inconsiderate dog owners, the sheer shortage of space is what gives drivers in this city the opportunity to play poulet.
Le Grand mayhem
Then there's the Place de Charles de Gaule or Étoile. Arc de Triomphe to non-natives. This is a huge roundabout, ten lanes abreast, from which 12 majestic and busy avenues radiate. There are hardly any road markings and sign posts are noticed when you're past them. Traffic lights in the median are waist high and the tall brown column traffic lights have diffused constricted lenses that only glow green and red. Here, every man for himself is the rule. Watch out for your far side front quarter. Horn blowing and cutting in is the only means of getting through. Unless you are on the Champs Élyseés, where you can avoid the Étoile by going through the underground Etoile tunnel and resurface at the Avenue de la Grand Armee.
Tire squeal galore
With the weather chilly, one keeps the heater on but also keep a window open so one can enjoy the sights, sounds and aroma of Paris, ever alert for 2-legged or 2-wheel mounted watch snatchers. In a short time, whatever the size of your car, you'll get used to the rhythmic patter of Michelin on polished granite pavé or cobblestone. And on those intersecting 30 degree acute angle corners on Haussmann mandated boulevards, don't let the squealing tires alarm you. With tire compounds now formulated for low rolling resistance to improve highway fuel economy and longevity, screeching tires are as common as clacketty heels.
The next challenge is getting onto and out of the Périphérique, Paris's main orbital ring road. The Périphérique is a multi lane expressway, like our EDSA, which used to be the defensive walls of the city. Here merging, akin to hand-to-hand combat, is tight as the on ramps and off ramps of succeeding junctions are so close to each. Moreover, the priority is given to traffic coming from the right, instead of favoring traffic already circulating through. With a speed limit of 70km/h, radar enforcement is by speed cameras aimed at the rear license plate. Directions on electronic message boards can confuse as it sometimes posts directions Est or Ouest or clockwise/anti-clockwise.
Part time beach expressway
Another driving challenge is the cross town riverside expressway, Voie Georges Pompidou. It featured in one of the more intense chase scenes in the de Niro movie, Ronin. And it was somewhere here where Princess Diana perished. The difficulty of driving this road is in the short on-ramp and off ramp vistas, its numerous columns and its twisting route as it shadows the river Seine. In summer, a large part of this avenue is closed to traffic as several trucks of beach sand are hauled and spread on the road to form Paris Plage Rive Droite, or the beach of Paris, right bank.
Living the transient life of a Parisian is not complete without a ride or a couple of rides in a Taxi Parisien. Forget about the smooth and intuitive passage by RATP bus and Metro by season ticket. If a ride in London's black cabs is British gentility and civility itself, taxi Parisien lives up to a different expectation. Flagging one down is not easy but when you see them parked where there are blue signs saying “station de taxis” you can be sure of a ride. Drivers refusing a ride is rare now as stickers proclaim a government run complaints desk phone number in case of any discourtesy.
Libre isn't free
Romanticized in old Hollywood movies as off white Peugeot 504 or 404 sedans depending on the era and driven by surly swarthy paisans, many taxi Parisiens today are dark colored current Mercedes. Invariably, they all have a white roof mounted wedge light printed with Taxi Parisien, which glows white when libre [available] or orange when hired. There are three little colored light diodes beneath which indicate which zone – A, B or C [city center, inner suburb, outer suburb]- the taxi is present, hence a different tariff depending on the day of the week and the time of day or night.
Just like in New York, Paris taxi drivers, being non-native or immigrants, are not known for their flawless knowledge of the Paris street map; so if you have a preferred route, say so. It won't cause offense. Sometimes, be prepared NOT to occupy the co-driver's seat, as invariably, the driver's dog is there or his sundry personal belongings, maps, lunch, etc. Do not expect him [or her] to unbundle his “office” space even if you want to sit a 4th passenger, for whom there is another charge. There are also add on charges for bulky luggage, per piece of luggage and a surcharge when coming from a mainline train station. There's also a minimum occupancy charge.