James May

French driver cartoon

Reverting to type

If there’s one thing I like it’s a nice broad, sweeping generalisation or a solid, dependable hackneyed old stereotype.

I especially like national stereotypes. They’re harmless, fun, and probably a lot more accurate than we care to believe. I don’t care if Italians think I buy condoms in packs of 12, so that I’ll have one for every month of the year, because in return it leaves me free to assume that all Italian men are mummy’s boys and that a hand grenade goes off in the belly of an Italian woman the instant she gets married. The Australians think we’re all whiners. Great. It means I can continue to regard them as backward because they think the height of sophistication is to cook your dinner over a bonfire. Here you do that if you’re a tramp.

And then there are the French, one of my favourite targets for a big broadside of ill-informed prejudice. Blah blah the war blah blah garlic blah blah berets moan moan communist tendencies drone drone referendum grumble grumble cheese smells funny.

Of course, France isn’t all bad. Jeremy, who secretly likes to think he is French, always maintains that food in humdrum French restaurants is better than it is in the equivalent establishments in England. And, much as I like to disagree with him as a simple matter of principle, on this occasion I may have to acknowledge that he could conceivably be right, technically.

We’ve just returned from a short motoring holiday we took together in France, and I have to say we ate simply and excellently; even in a remote hotel, the British equivalent of which was no doubt serving something sold as ‘oven-roast’ – as if you could do it any other way. The French really do seem to be more discerning in the matter of salad leaves and take more pleasure in serving them to you. It pains me deeply to have to concede a point from the Main Land to those subsidised, sheep-burning bastards, but there it is.

Mind you, they pay rather less respect to the opposite end of the alimentary system. The khazi I used in a roadside cafe appeared to have been untouched since Richard the Lionheart passed through. Great food but crap bogs, which means no matter how exquisite your croque monsieur is, it’s going to end badly.

But what really bothers me about France is this: if you go there in a nice car, it will be destroyed and you’ll be killed. Simple as that. The French drive like les lunatiques half an inch (12.7mm) from your rear bumper and there isn’t a car in Gay Paris without a stoved-in panel on it somewhere.

“The khazi I used in a roadside cafe appeared to have been untouched since Richard the Lionheart passed through”

Or are they? On our Boys’ Own hols I was driving a Ferrari F430 – not a car you’d normally want to take on to the so-called ‘roundabout’ that is the Arc de Triomphe. You may as well park up and go round it with a mallet, just to get it over with. Jeremy was in the Ford GT, and to make matters worse for him, it was his own car, and he was in the position of being asked to scrap it already. Meanwhile, Hammond was in a Pagani Zonda that he had on loan from a man we knew simply as ‘Mr Corleone’, so you can imagine how jittery he was.

And yet, after a few laps of the famous monument to Europe’s second-best General, we emerged from one of its 12 exits completely unscathed. A man in a Renault Megane actually stopped at one point and gestured to me to go before him. I immediately concluded that this must be some British bloke in a hire car.

But then again, on one of the few occasions when I got out of the Fezza, I found myself standing at a zebra crossing, and a woman in a Citroen Xantia stopped and beckoned me across. In the good old days, a French zebra crossing meant ‘cross if you dare’, but now it seems to work just like one of ours. And she was definitely French, she was wearing difficult spectacles with ludicrous pointy bits, and only French women do that.

Something strange has happened. I’ve actually been to France several times over the past month, and on each visit I’ve been struck not, for once, by a car, but by how politely the French are driving these days. Imagine my frustration. In the old days I could sit down to dinner in the brasserie and rant all night about how dreadful French driving is. Now I’m forced to whitter on about how marvellous the bread is, just like everyone else.

That’s not the end. I’ve been to Spain recently too, and something similar is going on there. Not so long ago driving through Spain was a simple matter of marvelling at the quality of the roads we’ve paid for and swerving around corpses and the wreckage of old Seats, but now it’s all ‘after you, hombre’ and using the indicators. Again, I managed to convince myself that this was the work of British people who keep a small hatchback at their holiday villa, but the fact is that at least one of the drivers I encountered was wearing one of those Don Juan deMarco waistcoats, so he was definitely a Spaniard.

This is terrible. I want to be able to rant with a clear conscience about their fish-thieving, but it’s difficult while they’re all being so bloody nice to me. I hope to God I never have to go to the Ukraine again. If they turn out to be driving around in a dignified and courteous manner instead of hooning around in broken Volgas while whacked on hooky vodka, my life will be ruined.

Whatever next? Germans driving slowly? Welsh people driving quickly? The Belgians being funny? It’s like waking up one day to discover that Jeremy has become a reasonable, balanced sort of bloke and Richard Hammond doesn’t want a fight. For a few days it would be great, but then I’d want them to go back to being an arse and a pain in the arse respectively and calling me Captain Slow all the time, because I actually prefer them that way.

Forget the constitution, or the currency, or the rules on competition. Just stop this appalling driving reasonableness. It’s destroying Europe.

Vive la différence, as they say in Italy.

This article was first published in December 2005.

James May, Column, Zonda, Ferrari

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