Sunday, June 9, 2013

Travel funnies 2013
Torrey Orton
June 9, 2013

Travel funnies – where everything is of interest that can be a bit strange, unusual, unexpected…in short, a threat to my normal preconceptions, understandings and values. The shock of the new is often a laugh of surprise, which isn’t what people are talking about when thy say they are just having a laugh. Now, here we go again…overseas that is, to France quite a lot, with a closing glance at Budapest, if it doesn’t get rained out, which it currently is on the flooding reports for this week.

“… verbalisation par camera..”

Having barely escaped the car rental company parking lot (learning to drive again – see below!) and started to navigate our way out of Nice we came to a series of traffic lights working more or less successfully to keep French drivers and foreign pretenders in line. Our attention was on the third ahead at which we needed to turn left. In the near distance an illuminated panel about 1 meter square next to the traffic lights blinked with neon intensity  –“ …verbalisation par camera…” I love the little wonders of our twinned languages and here was one. I haven’t checked yet whether “verbalisation” here means what being verballed means in Oz, but I’m guessing yes. That is, you can’t argue with this camera. Its sight is its word and the word is good…and you’re fined!!

Is this a case of French being eroded by English (a borrowing unauthorised by the Academie Francaise), by English usage (a real friend which turns out to have a bad family background) or just some unnoteworthy linguistic coincidence? Notice I haven’t considered that we borrowed the usage from French…. Ah, linguistic hegemony.

For the third trip in a row we are starting with a week in a rented car. The first two trips were outstanding successes, though the second of the two, a Skoda station wagon from their premier range, provided, on reflection, a forewarning of the vicissitudes late modernity has for me. It was a start by touch not by key machine.  Like many IT-innovated products the main usage processes were somewhat counter-intuitive. The rental company had no reasons to assume there was anything to warn me about. I’d obviously been driving a long time in a lot of places. While there was an on-board instruction module with screen (not touch screen and don’t wait for it) and all, I still thought driving a car was to be done by driving the car, not driving secondary screen-based systems enabling driving the car. Which brings me to now…

We have a Citroen D5 diesel 6 speed manual, four door plus hatch semi-RV with danger sensors all around and a rear looking reversing management system providing live video to aforesaid screen.  Whoever designed the thing clearly never drove on mountain roads like those of the Parc Mercantour in the French Alpes Maritimes just across the hill from eastern Italy. They are almost without exception, if we are off the local inter-village routes in the valleys, a constant opportunity for life threatening encounters either with other drivers who zing around as if we’re on an autoroute  and/or with falling off the side of a mountain with 200-300 shear metres drop available just to the right or left. Much of this opportunity occurs with switchbacks as mentioned.  And much of the opportunity is on roads which really fit about 1 and ½ cars with a mocking dividing line signalling passing allowed down the middle!!

The Bren gun carrier school of design

Now here’s the design glitch. The D5 is out of the Bren gun carrier school of vehicle configuration – squat and heavy – with the added complication of a pretence to tank-lite slits for windows, aggravated by the blockages to all around vision which occur when these characteristics are joined in one vehicle.  The roof beaming is also squashed, especially in the driver’s line of sight around the squeezed sharp turns of switchbacks. The turns can’t be seen around. Fortunately we have a flexible driver assist system in the passenger’s seat who can see around, sometimes. Meanwhile I’m trying to gauge the sharpness of the turn and the turn space the road builders happened to manage on this particular switchback (highly variable!) while changing down to first gear and not end up under a cement truck which has appeared from the next switchback driven at local driver’s speed, a competence for which I have yet to receive my probationer’s license…but then, that’s a self-administered qualification. How will I know I’m deserving? By not succumbing??


The origin of this gun carriage design I think is the Chrysler 300C of about ten years ago when scrunching the roof down on the body got its first life, with a net reduction in visibility for drivers and observability for others. Maybe the Lexus 4WD four door station wagon / RV of the late 90’s was an unintended contributor with its scrunched down rear section detracting from a clear view though providing a notionally aesthetic marketing edge at the time.

Over the last 5 years the feature has spread across the motoring marques from the Subaru XV last year back thru the BMW and Range Rover, with less pronounced versions all around suggesting aggressive cool for your driving buck. It seems to be an offshoot of the muscle machines which have increased in availability in direct proportion to the unreliability of everyday life. In our Citroen version the crunching of vision is such that it is almost impossible for the driver to get any rear view except through the rear vision screen!! And the slight bit available is squeezed by reduced rear window size and shape and oversized anti-whiplash headrests.

A stray left arm, or the return of the phantom limb

I’m always learning, sometimes by force of choice, as with unlearning my automatic driving responses to make the shift from right to left hand drive. I’ve on the whole done better this time than earlier when I had nearly irrepressible tendencies to turn into the left hand lane given any chance to do so. Not that unlearning here. Now it’s the one about shifting gears right-handed.

When a gear shifting need comes to mind, even after four days driving here and dozens of the switchback turns that dominate the mountain landscape demands to shift up or down to make the needed turns without having to stop hallway through and back up to gain the curve, my left hand starts lightly waving towards the non-existent shift lever in the direction of the car door close on my left. This happens before I am aware of the need thought which drives it. And the countermanding order arrives almost in tune with the phantom limb’s gesture at controlling the car, but consciously telling my right hand to reach for the shift lever which is, correctly for a left hand drive car, to my right!

I haven’t driven a manual car for 7 years, except that first drive in France three years ago. Not an excuse. Rather, perspective on the embedded habits I am dealing with. Plus, while I’m at it, here’s an acknowledgement of relevant prior experience in these matters. I grew up in a right hand drive world and spent my first 14 years as a driver driving in it.

The feeling of being here - Squeezed

“Squeezed” was the word that came to mind reflecting on the events and scenes above. Driving is an endless squeeze to pass by any other vehicle, to resist the temptation to speed up to local rates and to stay on the roads when the vertiginous attraction of the deeps just off them are at their strongest.


 The countryside is actually squeezing in a way different from the other alpine areas we’ve visited in the last 10 years. Though only averaging around 3000 metres at the highest, the Alpes Maritime of the Mercantour are a dense impression sustained by the depth and narrowness of the array of valleys between them. Another take on the feeling of being here is embraced… on an easily accessible walk yesterday we got closer to the highest peaks than we ever did in the Pyrenees or other French Alpes and so giving the experience of being surrounded by them. I took a video sweep of them which covered about 270 degrees.


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