TRAVEL / David P. Hamilton : What We Won’t See Driving Across France

Driving in rural France. Image from InterNations.

What Americans won’t see
while driving across France

Near Paris, there are extensive wheat fields for kilometers without fences, interspersed with old mixed deciduous forests, pastures of fat cows, and the occasional 12th century abbey.

By David P. Hamilton | The Rag Blog | July 16, 2013

PARIS — These thoughts arose during a recent drive to a friend’s country cottage three hours south of Paris, on every road type from superhighways to one lane, unpaved country lanes. What’s missing from the landscape in France that I would see routinely while traveling across Texas?

1. “Manufactured housing,” aka trailer houses. This is not a relative matter. It is an absolute. You never see trailer houses in France. I’m told that they are illegal, in violation of national building codes. You do see vacation campers that can actually be towed behind cars. Some people doubtless live in them, but that is illegitimate usage.

There is no such thing as cheap prefabricated housing in France. The carcases of such dwellings do not litter the landscape. Hence, there is no direct French translation of “trailer trash”. As an alternative, they have affordable public housing.

2. Houses constructed on 2×4 wood frames. In the U.S., the typical house is built using a 2×4 wood frame on a concrete slab with siding outside and sheetrock inside. They don’t build houses like that in France. Apparently, such houses aren’t good enough to satisfy the building codes or the French commitment to quality.

The idea of producing houses that wear out in a generation seems to have never caught on here. Instead, houses in France are typically built of reinforced cinder block and stone covered by stucco inside and out. The older ones are usually stone and mortar with heavy rough-cut wooden beams that are more like 12x12s. This reminds one of the central theme of “The Three Little Pigs.” Along comes a wolf (or tornado) and down goes that stick version.

Most U.S. housing has built-in planned obsolescence so that the construction industry gets to sell a new one to every generation and the banks get a new secured loan. Stone houses that, with proper maintenance, can last for centuries are part of the socialist conspiracy to undermine the proper market functioning of the housing industry.

3. Pickup trucks. As a pickup truck owner, I can’t really explain this, but there are almost no pickup trucks in France. Instead, there are panel trucks, often completely covered with extravagant graffiti. No French car maker produces a pickup. Neither do the Germans or Italians. There are a few Nissans and Toyotas here, but not the pickup models. I was told that pickups are “stupid” because they don’t provide security. If nothing else, this aversion to pickups means less highway litter.

I suspect that many pickup trucks parked in suburban U.S. driveways primarily satisfy the symbolic function of identifying the owner with his lost rural past and manly physical work; a reactionary cultural tendril reaching back toward the mythic old West in an attempt to replicate the supposed values of yore in the absence of horses, cows, and sweat.

4. American-made cars. There are a few Fords and Chevys that are made in Europe, but it doesn’t look like American made cars are imported in quantity. There may be Mercedes dealers all over the U.S., but there are no Cadillac dealers in Germany.

Almost the only American-made cars I’ve seen in Paris were collector items — the late 60’s Mustang convertible being transported on a flatbed truck or the Hummer parked off-street in upscale western Paris, probably seldom used since it is impossible to park on the street (too wide, automatic ticket) and exorbitant to operate.

About 70% of the cars in France are French-made, either Renault, Citroen, or Peugeot. They all make very fine cars these days, mostly clean-burning diesel-powered sedans that get about 70 kilometers per gallon. All are exported widely, but not to the U.S. The high percentage of diesel powered cars here is also due to diesel being significantly cheaper than gasoline, logical since diesel is much easier to refine. The lower price here for diesel points up the fact that diesel owners in the U.S. are getting screwed.

Gasoline in France currently costs about 1.60 euros per liter or about $8 per gallon. Most of that is taxes, which are used to develop and promote public transportation. The super-mini smart cars are a big hit in Paris. But the metro (1.5 billion rides a year), hundreds of buses, the bateaubus river boats, public electric cars, and thousands of public bicycles are much bigger hits.

5. Bumper stickers. I can’t recall ever seeing a political bumper sticker on a car in France — or a joke bumper sticker either — or any kind of sign or bumper sticker other than very occasionally “Bebe Aborde.” An American friend who has lived in Paris 35 years says that is because bumper stickers are “tacky”.

Regardless, it is clear that while the French are willing to demonstrate in massive numbers at the drop of a political hat, they are not ostentatious about those beliefs while driving. Nor do they brag about their child’s accomplishments in kindergarten or flaunt their twisted sense of humor or advertise their favorite band.

I’ve never seen a French car with a French flag sticker either, let alone flying French flags on little plastic poles attached to the windows — not even on Bastille Day. I guess they don’t feel that their patriotism is in question, so it doesn’t require perpetual demonstration. Or maybe patriotism isn’t so cool here anymore after they lost a few million citizens during several centuries of “patriotic” wars.

6. College affiliation stickers. The French equivalent of my University of Texas Alumni Association sticker seems not to exist. There is nothing like the ubiquitous orange Longhorn decal one sees continually in Austin. No “Sciences Po” on the back window.

I suspect this has to do with French schools somehow managing to educate young people without fostering spectator sports addiction among them. It could also be partly explained by all French public schools having the same curriculum and teacher pool.

Publicly flaunting your supposed educational accomplishments in the U.S. is primarily a means to express your particular tribal allegiance. Such tribalism is encouraged in the U.S. as a diversion from the danger of people becoming unified around shared interests rather than divided over Longhorns vs. Aggies, Cowboys vs. Redskins, etc, ad nauseum. The French instead teach something called “solidarity.”

7. Junked cars. There are no roadside car burial grounds, aka, junk yards. In fact, I didn’t see any junk cars at all. I don’t really know what is done with them, but I suspect some communal solution that takes place in the dead of night in some remote industrial area. Cars parked in one spot too long on a Paris street, evidenced by deep layers of bird poop and parking tickets, seem to disappear on specially constructed flatbed trucks equipped with car-sized forklifts that scour the streets in the early morning.

Of course, there were old cars parked beside houses in the countryside that were not in motion. But none of them were up on bricks, had flat tires, were rusted out, had tall weeds growing around them, or were otherwise obviously debilitated. My friend’s car on this trip was a 25-year-old Volvo.

So maybe they just keep them going, oblivious of the fact that such a lack of consumer “confidence” jeopardizes capitalism’s need for perpetual renewal and expansion.

8. Billboards. There are evidently strict laws regulating “outdoor advertising” in France. There are only a few commercial signs decorating the roadsides, perhaps 1% of what you see in the U.S. The roadside signs you normally see are small ones clustered on the edge of towns and around commercial centers. These are typically one meter by two meters or less and refer to local establishments.

If you drive through large industrial and commercial areas outside major towns, there are more and they are bigger. But there are no commercial signs at all on superhighways and there are no U.S. billboard-size commercial signs anywhere. The public authorities apparently recognize that such signs are a distraction to drivers and have opted for safety over sales, another significant socialist infringement on your God-given right to consume without restraint.

9. Fences, especially barbed wire fences. There are fences along superhighways that attempt to impede animals from crossing them, but once on secondary roads, fences become scarce, generally only surrounding pastured animals and almost never with barbed wire. It seems that the French commitment to property rights doesn’t go so far as barbs. In the U.S., real property is almost always fenced. In France it usually is not.

On the back roads, kilometers roll by among fields, forests, and little villages without a fence in sight. I’m told that France long ago required rural property owners who “enclosed the commons” to provide the public with a means to cross that land. That tradition remains. We walked hours along paths over rolling hills beside fields and through forests without encountering a fence or a “Keep Out” sign. There was strangely no question as to whether we had a right to be there.

10. “No Trespassing” or “Posted: Keep Out” signs. I did see a couple of “Chemin privee” signs, which mean “private road.” But as we took our walks through the countryside, I never saw a sign saying “No Trespassing” or anything of the kind. I am told such signs do exist, but since property owners must provide a means to cross their land, they are uncommon.

Clearly, property rights are not well-respected in this country. This lack of separation between mine and yours also reflects that French “fraternity,” which contrasts markedly with the state religion of individualism practiced by much of the population in the U.S.

11. Any reference to interscholastic or intercollegiate athletics. No sign pops up on the edge of a quaint village saying “Go Hippos!” No billboard screams “Gig Um Aggies!” — whatever that might mean. This is due largely to the utterly inconceivable sacrilege committed by French educational institutions by not sponsoring competitive athletic teams. Here, if you want to play football on a team (aka soccer in the U.S.), you must actually join a football club that has no formal connection to a school.

You also will find no reference to “American football” whatsoever, anywhere in France. I know it is hard to imagine how the male population here endures life without it, but football, as only Americans conceive it, literally does not exist in France — or really anywhere else other than the U.S. Can you possibly imagine the pathetic state to which my own suburban high school would descend without its $50 million dollar football stadium, its $200,000-a-year football coach, the pep rallies, the cheer leaders – the “traditions”?

12. Highway Patrol cars. It’s not that France doesn’t have highway cops and enforce its highway traffic laws. They just don’t do it with high-powered vehicles driven by power-drunk young men lurking beside the road. In the course of several thousand miles of driving across France, I’ve seen perhaps two incidents where motorcycle cops stopped vehicles on highways.

One rarely sees marked highway police vehicles at all. France does have unmarked traffic cop cars that will photograph your license plate while you are committing an offense and send you a fine in the mail. They also have radar in fixed sites that do the same thing. But very rarely does anyone actually pull you over. This no-stopping policy cuts down on problematic cop-citizen interactions on the roadside leading to more serious issues, such as the common U.S. criminal offense of young black male driving a Mercedes.

13. Tractor/trailer trucks outside the right lane on superhighways. A tractor-trailer strays out of the right hand lane on a high-speed highway only when one slow truck is passing an even slower one. It is rare, momentary, and often results in flashing lights and blaring horns from passing cars. This is due to the simple fact that trucks are restricted to a maximum speed of 90 kph (56 mph) on superhighways while cars can go 130 kph (81 mph).

The left lane is used exclusively by cars due to the simple fact that they are allowed to go so much faster than trucks. This segregation of cars and trucks makes superhighways in France much safer. Due to very tight restrictions on money in politics, ( i.e., bribes), the trucking industry lobby in France obviously lacks the political clout of its American counterpart.

14. Fly-overs. You never encounter a high speed curving road 100 feet in the air in France. You know how fun those are with a couple of those tractor trailers doing 80 on your butt. Tunnels are the preferred alternative. My acrophobic wife much prefers the French highways for their ground hugging approach to traffic management.

15. Long stretches of superhighway with no facilities. The roadside facilities include fuel, edible food, decent coffee, clean toilets that don’t require getting a key from a surly teenager, playgrounds, picnic tables, ample parking, green space, and various other amenities. They are regular built-in features of major highways, occurring about every 25 kilometers.

These “aires” are publicly owned and leased out to private companies to operate. Superhighways are almost all toll roads and you don’t exit them in order to visit an “aire.” This means that these highways usually don’t have “frontage roads,” which means that they are not lined with commercial enterprises. And that means that such enterprises stay in the towns nearby so those towns are less likely to dry up and blow away like so many small towns in the U.S. that had the misfortune to be located a mile or so from the interstate highway.

16. Fields of GMO corn or GMO anything else. In the U.S., over 90% of the corn, cotton, and sorghum raised is genetically modified. In France, food products that contain greater than 0.1 percent GMO components must be labeled to indicate the use of GMOs. If so labeled, people won’t buy them in sufficient quantities to make their sale profitable. Hence, they hardly exist.

Many packaged food products here do have labels that prominently declare that they have no GMO components, apparently a major selling point. The average French person spends a much higher percentage of their disposable income on food than does the average American, despite having similar incomes and food prices.

Here, being a “foodie” has deep cultural roots. There are hundreds of registered types of French cheese. Despite the proliferation of supermarkets, it remains very common for consumers to patronize specialty food stores and street markets almost exclusively, even though they are more expensive. People here who are serious about their food, don’t buy perishable food products in supermarkets and are willing to spend more for better quality products.

17. Empty fields and unused farmland. If you drive from Austin to Dallas or Houston, you will likely see only two or three different crops being raised commercially. Corn and hay mainly. Maybe some cotton or sorghum. You will see great expanses of land that could be farmed, not being farmed. Or grazing land with nothing grazing.

Here, the land is used much more intensively. Even if the purpose is to keep an area natural, that purpose is pursued with intent. Forests are distinct, usually surrounded by equally distinct planted fields. Near Paris, there are extensive wheat fields for kilometers without fences, interspersed with old mixed deciduous forests, pastures of fat cows, and the occasional 12th century abbey. The whole countryside looks purposeful. In Burgundy, the vines of the world’s best wines stretch across rolling hills mixed with yellow blooming rape seed (canola oil) and green wheat fields, a checkerboard of color that would make a Baylor fan ecstatic.

18. Dying small towns. France had about 20 million inhabitants in 1300. 300 years of plague and war diminished that number by about half. Hence, many villages in France today are very old and have a medieval core. There are so many quaint and charming thousand-year-old villages dotting the French countryside, they become a cliché. There are volumes entitled “the 100 most picturesque villages in (fill in the region of your choice)” and the competition to get listed is stiff.

Most small towns in rural France are not drying up and blowing away. They instead are experiencing a resurgence as the trends of second homes and urban dwellers retiring to the country grow and large numbers of foreigners continue to invest in French real estate, 250,000 British alone. We have rented apartments in France that were owned by expat-Americans, British, Irish, and Italians as well as French.

In addition, the French have the world’s highest rate of second home ownership, mostly in rural settings. Towns of a few hundred people have excellent restaurants and charming boutique hotels set in 200-year-old farmhouses. Village street markets present a cornucopia of locally produced food items to eager crowds of generally older folk.

We lined up at the weekly street market in the public square of the small town of Levroux, hardly a common destination, to buy the local white asparagus and goat cheeses with the other seniors. This market offered a considerable array of gourmet food products in a town of roughly 3,000 inhabitants. Most of our fellow shoppers had walked to the market pulling their little two-wheeled grocery carts, a device about as common in the U.S. as walking to the grocery store.

The “supermarket” across the street from this market is the size of a U.S. convenience store and was quiet on market day.

19. Exception (something you see more of in France): Road rage. You will see a lot more road rage while driving in France. People yell, honk, and shoot the finger with relative abandon compared to the U.S. French drivers are aggressive and vocal. I attribute this to Latin temperament and the extreme rarity of handguns. And it’s all bluster.

There are occasional moments when the French landscape is unattractive. Industrial areas and large commercial centers are growing on the outskirts of the larger of those lovely villages. The French retailer Carrefour is second only to Walmart. Some parts of the “banlieu” outside Paris are notorious for their grimness.

The “outdoor advertising” industry is small, but growing. McDonalds, Subway, and Starbucks are plentiful in cities. The Americanization of France is a continuous force. But the American driving through rural France should be warned in advance that things are different there in ways that don’t necessarily reflect well on what they assume is “the best of all possible worlds.”

[David P. Hamilton, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government was an activist in 1960s-’70s Austin and was a contributor to the original Rag. David and wife Sally spend part of every year in France. Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag Blog.]

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4 Responses to TRAVEL / David P. Hamilton : What We Won’t See Driving Across France

  1. Anonymous says:

    David,
    love reading your blog and your photos, thanks for sharing…I did see a few no trespassing signs while visiting friends in Burzet.
    things are crazier than usual here and am planning on giving evryone Hoodies for Christmas this year, especailly my relatives all Republicans, hug Sally, Susan

  2. Anonymous says:

    okay, spelling errors, oh my !

  3. Thanks Anon. I fixed one spelling mistake and one typo. Always appreciated. — Ed.

  4. Anon, I have also visited friends in Burzet– Martha Kubecka and Alain. Is this a coincidence?

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