French Lessons welcomes Rachael for a second year running as our annual guest contributor. Last summer she explained how she dealt with her impounded car at the local fourrière. This year her automotive theme continues, as does her – ahem – fast wit.
A few months ago, I was invited by the French government to attend a Stage de sensibilisation à la sécurité routière – a Speed Awareness Course – mainly because they put a new speed camera on the motorway from Monaco to Nice.
A driving license in France starts with 12 points. For small infractions you lose one point. I’ve lived here for 17 years, and my record had remained unblemished. But every Thursday I drive to Monaco, and after six weeks I suddenly had only six points left.
I’m British. Maybe it’s because driving restrictions are more draconian back home, or maybe I just have reckless friends, but I’ve known many people who’ve done a British driving awareness course. My sister, in fact, did it a year ago. The class lasted four hours, and all the participants did was sit around a table talking. She came home with a recipe for a no-bake cake.
My course in France would be in French, of course, but I wasn’t worried. My French is pretty good. I can make people cry with my accent.
I booked my slot. I was a bit worried that the only available option was a two-day course. Blimey, I thought, speed is a big deal in France. I went immediately to Carrefour to buy new pencils and pens. I would take this back-to-school malarkey seriously.
Class day dawned, and I drove to a bland corporate hotel in Antibes. There was no parking available, so I blocked someone in and told the concierge to deal with my car. It was not a promising start to my driving rehab.
The class included 18 other pupils. All were French. All were men. The course leader introduced herself as Constance. She and her co-coordinator, a psychologist (?!), had notched up five of these sessions themselves.
It didn’t sound to me like a very efficient prevention course. From that moment, I lost faith our leader. So did most of my colleagues – and it had nothing to do with the fact that Constance was about 25 years old and dressed like a goth.
To start out, each of us had to read a page outlining our expected behaviour over the course of the two days together. We had to be respectful of others. There would be no discrimination, racism or sexism. We had to turn up awake(!), sober, and free from the influence of mind-altering substances.
The document was detailed, and all 19 of us had to agree to its words. Constance gave a single copy of the document to the first of my colleagues, who diligently spent four minutes reading the page before passing it to a second person, who spent four minutes reading, and so on.
Shall I mention the overhead projector connected to Constance’s laptop? She didn’t use it.
By the time we all had read the document and nodded our acceptances, we’d reached our coffee break. It had been a long while since anyone dared impose such an inefficient use of my time.
And then there was no milk for my coffee. Talk about discrimination. We Brits have white coffee.
For the rest of the morning, we were divided into small groups. Each group received a large sheet of paper on which we were to illustrate who dies on the road in ascending order: motorbikes, pedestrians, caravan drivers, etc. At least my coloured pencils came in handy.
By this stage, I’d worked out that most of us were serious professionals. It was quite enjoyable being at Montessori together. Shortly we were throwing paper darts and engaging in collective works of sabotage. Constance screamed at us to behave, but we ignored her. The psychologist bit her fingernails.
Once we’d presented our drawings to each other, and that was the morning done. I’d learned precisely nothing, but I really liked the group. We all went for lunch to McDonald’s. The psychologist ordered a Happy Meal. Constance had half a piece of lettuce and 20 fags.
The afternoon was more fun because we got to watch road awareness and safety videos. But . . . France hasn’t ever worried about the fact that it has the highest kill rate on roads among first-world countries. I do remember Jacques Chirac saying the French should drive more like the Brits, but the government still hasn’t bothered to make safety films of their own.
Our first video was, therefore, British. Oh, how my proud heart soared! The video was an advert I grew up with in the 70’s: Think Once, Think Twice, Think Bike. I could lip sync it.
I was in nostalgia overload when I noticed puzzled faces around me. Of course the biker nearly got hit, my classmates were thinking. He was pedalling on the wrong side of the road! And the driver was sitting in the passenger seat . . . driving.
If the first video was a waste of time for my fellow fast drivers, the second one must’ve seemed irrelevant. It was so old that everyone in it wore a suit and a bowler hat. And that was it for Day One.
The weather turned bad on Day Two. The air was chilly and the heating in our conference room at the corporate hotel was broken, so my colleagues and I spent the day in our coats, hats, gloves, and scarves. Constance did allow us a break outside in the storm in order to warm up, and so that she could have another fag.
Day Two brought some general road safety information – and I finally learned something. The reason there’s a “Give Way” sign on some junctions and a “Stop” sign on others has to do with the blind spot in our sight when we look right. That factoid may have little to do with speed, but at least it stirred something in the old grey matter.
We also heard about reflexes, and the speed of these reflexes. They are less responsive the more alcohol or drugs you use. Well blow me down with a feather. The remaining subjects for the morning were The Law, Safety, and Speed. Obvious, tedious, and patronising.
As much as I loved the group, my body was not going to McDos again, so I hotfooted it to an industrial estate for a Lebanese with a five-star Trip Advisor rating. (Class time had been useful for something.) The restaurant was warm, the food was delicious, and actually the distance didn’t matter. French lunch breaks last for two hours.
Only three hours of class remained before I was free to resume my normal life, plus I’d have recuperated four points for my licence. Our final class exercise was word association. We were each given a sheet of paper, and then Constance announced our word: Speed. We were to quickly write three things that came into our heads.
After a two-day speed awareness and safety course where we’d learned the rules of the land, watched educational videos, and illustrated death in felt pens and coloured pencils, these were some of the words the class associated with speed:
Fast n Furious
Ça passe ou ça casse (Kill or be killed)
The instructors said we were the worst class ever.
For me, the days weren’t a total loss. I cried with laughter on more than one occasion, I learned one fact, and I found a great restaurant. More importantly, I discovered that the French are as funny as the English. Their banter and teasing are of an international standard. That definitely made up for not coming home with a no-bake cake recipe.