Finding my way in France

Language, bureaucracy, and attitude can be tough. But for me, roundabouts are the worst.

By

A few months after we moved to Tours, in France's Loire Valley, I wanted to meet my husband, Stéphane, for lunch at the university where he worked. I got lost. I had to call him from the roadside to find out how to get back to the university, which I'd far overshot. Stéphane's office mate, a Brazilian well acclimated to French life, overheard the conversation and said, "How could she get lost? You just go straight."

Well, no. That's the problem. You never "just go straight," because France is the land of roundabouts. Highways, major streets, little village lanes – if you go straight long enough, you'll end up going in circles. As if figuring out French life in general – the language, the bureaucracy, the savoir-vivre, what day to put out the garbage – weren't enough, I had to find a new way to find my way. I wanted to go straight while everyone else was turning circles around me.

Even after a year here, I'd still get lost going to the grocery store, or just about anywhere that wasn't within a hundred yards of my house.

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I admit I have a horrible sense of direction, can't read a map, and am not such a hot driver. Plus, I've been spoiled by living in American cities, where the streets more or less follow a logical gridlike pattern, as in New York, where the numbers increase going northward or westward, except where they don't. And, yes, in TriBeCa or the financial district, I'm likely to get lost.

In France, the centres commercials are my ultimate nightmare because they're roundabouts within roundabouts: ugly swaths of concrete and tar inhabited by big-box stores connected by a maze of alleys and byways. You may see your goal, a clothing store, off in the distance. But no matter how far you travel, it seems to remain there – in the distance, shimmering like a desert mirage. You start off going in the right direction, but because of all the roundabouts and one-way streets, you end up going in exactly the opposite direction. Once you get to a roundabout, of course, you can turn around and go back the way you came. But by that time you've wasted 20 minutes and a quarter tank of gas.

This, my husband says, is the advantage of roundabouts. Not the time and gas-wasting, but the fact that you can always turn around. True. And he claims that you don't really need a road map or to write down directions to get anywhere in France. You just need to know your destination and watch the signs in the traffic circles. And if you don't see your sign the first time around, you can go around and around until you spot your exit.

I suppose.

But as soon as I get into a roundabout I panic. Rather than circling to survey my options with a cooler head, I exit somewhere, anywhere.

Six years into our French living experiment and having recently moved to the Paris region, I have adopted the logical solution: a GPS application on my smart phone. I rely on it to get just about anywhere, even places I've been.

But it does leave me feeling dumb, frustrated, and helpless during the fairly frequent instances when the program freaks out, loses its bearings, can't find a GPS signal, or isn't updated to reflect recent road changes. A little blue arrow, representing my aging Peugeot, appears on-screen, moving across apparently uncharted territory. Then I just have to keep advancing in any direction until my GPS gets a grip. Or else I use my old solution: I call my husband.

We recently went to the Alps for a vacation, and a friend asked me where we went. I had no idea. Wasn't "the Alps" precise enough? As far as I knew, we just plugged in the address and drove. Was it the north Alps or south? Was it near Chamonix or closer to Italy? Who knew? Are GPS devices making us dumber or are they essential aids to those who might not venture outside their gates otherwise? In my case, it's probably both.

Maybe one day I'll wake up with a sense of direction. Maybe one day I'll figure out the French and their way of life. But in the meantime, you'll find me in an Île-de-France roundabout, trying to figure out where to exit.

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