One of the first things a visitor to France mentions to us after driving in their rented Peugeot are the Roundabouts. How do they navigate those circles with cars coming at you in all directions? They ask. The English are more familiar with the roundabout, but the Americans often are faced with their first turn around the circle upon leaving the Montpellier airport parking lot.
After living in France fulltime for the last 18 months, I've become quite used to the roundabouts and quite enjoy them. Today, however, I had an epiphany driving from our small village in the south of France to Uzes five kilometers away through the countryside, and then onto the larger town of Nimes 30 kilometers away. I realized that if I never went to the big city or outside the Uzege region, I would be able to drive forever without ever stopping at a red light. There are just no stoplights in this entire area.
In France, and especially in the country, roundabouts are loved. These beautiful circles are planted with various landscape designs, fountains, vineyards (yes on a roundabout) gardens and trees. The French, being a very civilized society, know how to weave their cars through the double lanes, pass a car on the left and cut over just in the nick of time to the cut off to the road on their right. Cars entering the roundabout yield to those already in the circle (first come, first serve) and somehow they all move together.
In driving through these roundabouts, I'm amazed at the feeling of flow. There are no abrupt stops where you wait forever for the light to turn green, or in the worse cases, for the left hand turn lane to go, then the right hand turn lane, then the opposite turn lane, and ten minutes later you get to go. I could have finished the New York Times crossword puzzle in the amount of time I waited.
Now, roundabouts also have their challenges, especially if you don't know which direction to take. Marriages have been lost in a roundabout when the wife is reading the map and the husband is yelling, "which way do I go?" The solution is simple however; keep going around until your wife figures it out. Sometimes it's one time around, sometimes two and our all time record was four times around.
Once when my husband and I were sitting in a cafe near a roundabout, we saw a car go around for an hour. No kidding - a good hour. Finally, the car took off in one direction and no sooner was it gone that it turned around and came back heading in the other direction. We hoped they found their way.
The other benefit of a roundabout is that it is aesthetically pleasing. Our little girl loves roundabouts. In fact, she asks me to take photos of her favorite roundabouts for her collection. She's given up dolls and instead she now collects roundabouts. Her favorites are the ones with fountains and farmyard scenes. On one roundabout, there was even a goat. We aren't sure whose it was, but it was there. My favorite is the vineyard roundabout. What a great use of space. Only the French would think of planting a vineyard on a roundabout.
So after this epiphany I decided to look up the invention of the stoplight. Of course, I discovered it was invented in America, the country of practical inventions. A man named Garrett Morgan; a black American born of former slaves witnessed a terrible traffic accident when a car collided with a horse and carriage. The driver was injured and the horse had to be put down. As a successful inventor, he set out to develop a signal for the city of Cleveland. His hand cranked invention was patented in 1923.
Simultaneously a policeman named William Potts in Detroit decided that the police were spending so much time directing traffic something needed to be done. As a result, he invented the red, green and amber light model based on a design used by the railroads. And the rest is history. Stoplights took off and the childhood game red light, green light was invented.
Today, the stop light is computerized and can decide how many lights should be green, red and yellow. The problem with this, however, as I remember well from driving down 19th avenue in San Francisco, is that the lights were never timed for your car to go through all in one fell swoop. What could have taken me 15 minutes to get through San Francisco's 19th Avenue with all green lights took me 30 minutes with stop go, stop go, stop go.
So, to my list of why we love France, I add roundabouts. It is one of those daily encounters which make your life a little better and your day flow a little easier.
With 15,000 roundabouts in France, I hope to continue flowing.